Where there’s muck there’s brassicas

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One of my favourite times of the year is here. I wait for the first buds to appear on my Elder Flower tree, outside my kitchen window. I set the date, it’s going to be me, radio 3, a nice cup of coffee, a bag of compost and a large pile of seed packets I bought cheap at the end of last season, what more excitement could a man ask for. Big city living! I almost always choose a Sunday for alliterative reasons, (Seedling Sunday) it looks great in my diary, I lay out the packets so I can see all of them at once and I consider my tactics for the year.

In this episode I am not going to give you endless expert advice on seedlings, largely because I am no expert on seedlings, but I will explain what has worked well for an amateur gardener like me and pass on some of the most simple things that have brought me the most joy and hopefully it will do the same for you. You don’t have to be an expert to get growing, nature will help you out, or as my senior citizen Italian friend Raphael used to say, (Bad Italian accent) ‘You put it into the ground, it comes out of the ground.’

You may be thinking this has very little to do with sheds or craft, but I think it has everything to do with it. Firstly let us not forget the humble allotment shed, the spiritual home of the Seedling Sunday, and as you will see later, my own shed is very much a part of the garden or rather the garden is very much a part of my shed.

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Also, growing your own food very much fits into the philosophy of working with your hands in a meaningful way, it has all the same properties of craft. You are of course using your hands, there is an unlimited learning process which will last a life time, and there is a sort of humbling mind-set that arises from the act of creating and nurturing something with love which brings you closer to the end result, in this case food

ALLOTMENT ROOFED SHED Let me show you my own shed. For years I wanted to have an allotment. But when I moved to London I found that waiting lists for an allotment were unexpectedly long. I didn’t really have the room in my garden for crop growing since I needed to build a shed in it for a work space. So I though rather than putting a shed on an allotment, I would put an allotment on a shed.
I spend quite a bit of time up here and in a big city like London it really is like having a mini countryside in my garden, sometimes I wonder why I have a house at all. I have a little stove up there and it’s great to pick some tomatoes and make a nice hot tomato sandwich, I mean my kitchen is only about 10 meters away but it’s not quite the same, I even have a tin bath up there and on good weather days I will have a soak surrounded by my fruit and veg before doing the dash past my neighbours to dry off.
Over the years I have learned what works well on my shed roof. Actually I am continually surprised at how successful it has been, the raised beds hold more than enough moisture and I think the fact that it is on the roof means the plants actually get access to more sunlight than they often would on the ground.

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Let me take you through my favourites for my shed roof.

PERENNIALS: My perennials which aren’t part of the seedlings selection consist of Asparagus, Rhubarb, Strawberries and blueberries. These are a great start to any garden, I pick strawberries and blueberries for my porridge and have rhubarb crumble in the summer. Asparagus is my favourite to eat but it takes a few years to get going.
HERBS: I have a selection of herbs towards the highest part of the roof, this area tends to dry out first and the herbs seem to be able to cope, more than that, they seem to thrive. Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Tarragon, Oregano all seem pretty hardy to me and last through the winter. But then I will always add some more varieties, just for the summer.
POTATOES & TOMATOES: First on my growing list is always potatoes and tomatoes, in my mind it is sensible to choose a crop that you like to eat and it also helps if your produce tastes better than they do in the supermarket, this is definitely true of the tomato! I find potatoes to be sort of incredible. You can put a half eaten, mouldy runt of a potato into soil and sure enough it will try and more often than not succeed in throwing up some leaves and re-producing itself.
ROOTS & ONIONS: For root vegetables I just grow beetroot, when I started I liked that it was really easy to spot the purple leaves which you can pick for a salad and I like beetroot with my scouse stew. I always have onions & leeks, I find them really easy to grow and I eat a lot of them.
BRASSICAS: I don’t know if these are strictly brassicas, but last year I grew Kale and rainbow chard, the kale is a bit of a super food and I use it in smoothies sometimes and I was impressed by the rainbow chard, it just kept coming right through the summer and deep into autumn.
CUCURBITS: I don’t grow legumes (peas and beans), I seem to struggle with aphids, so instead I always grow courgettes and the odd squash. Courgettes can be expensive in the shops and I do really well with them. I pick them when they are quite small and they seem to keep producing.
ROTATION: It is worth at this point to briefly explain my layman’s rotation system. Rotation is a traditional way of reducing disease and increasing yield by way of moving crops around to help soil nutrition. My system consists of rotating these categories, the potatoes & tomatoes, the roots and onions, and the brassicas, then in any of the gaps, I plant the cucurbits, it’s pretty basic, but it works well for me.
WILD FLOWERS: Finally I always spread some wild seeds at the end of the roof garden which backs onto the surrounding allotments in an effort to drag in some of the bees and butterflies of the area. It is of course lovely to see both the wild flowers and the wildlife they bring in, but don’t forget they are also helping to pollinate your crops and reduce your workload. I still have a wild flower mix from my friends at kew gardens, you can get some native wild flower seeds for free here http://www.growwilduk.com

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SUCCESSES & FAILURES are a normal part of growing and each year I adjust my plan slightly. Last year, the rainbow chard was my great success; my failure I would say was the sweetcorn, the failure was not so much growing the sweetcorn as protecting it from my long term battle with the local squirrel gangsters. Another problem I should talk about is what I call my seedling loyalty, some of you will understand what I mean, some will not. I have a certain affection for the seedlings I grow and this is a good thing, some of the little fella’s need a little tlc, but this affection makes it hard to throw away the plants that just aren’t going to cut it, even though I know they will take valuable space away from the stronger seedlings and result in a smaller yield. There’s something of the left wing sociopolitical conscience about it, like I’m hoping the ones with less resources are going to come good eventually with a little help and they deserve the right to have a smash at life anyway! As far as I know seedlings aren’t aware of the injustices of class systems, although I’ve heard they have some comprehension of the glass ceiling.

At the start of the year I also try to add at least one ‘unknown’ crop.  To see how it fares, continuing my knowledge little by little. This year’s experiments will be the chilli & some khol rabi. I know nothing about the kohl rabbi except it sounds exotic and I’ve heard chillies can be a little sensitive in their younger days, but can’t we all.

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By putting a small amount of time and effort into your seedlings now, they will repay you right through the year. It is a great feeling popping up on to the roof to pick some vegetables or herbs to supplement the evening meal. I mean it is no weekly shop, but it does help a little financially, more importantly the produce is often nicer than that in the supermarkets and probably healthier.
There is also more to the act of growing than just the creation of food. I work as an artist as well as a shed builder, I believe that being around nature especially plants makes me a better artist, it subconsciously gives me better composition. I think it was Matisse who had an allotment, and every morning he would go and sit with the artichokes, he would use them as a kind of meditation to give him inspiration. I don’t care who you are or what you do, everyone benefits from sitting quietly in nature.

I am always aware when I am around these crops, of natures incredible work ethic, its relentless steady production is an inspiration and it reminds me I am a part of nature, and that the act of working makes us who we are. For me, there is still something incredible about the simplicity of putting a seed into the ground that holds all the information to create a plant, and watching this little miracle emerge before you. Humans work well in this environment, nurturing a seedling into a plant brings me joy, because you quite literally see the fruits of your labour. And the joy you feel from this process is important, because it feels as though it is nature’s way of letting us know that what we are doing is good and the right way to be. (Cosmic carpenter alert!) Ultimately the act of growing, like craft is about being connected to the world you experience around you and subsequently connects you to life and the universe.
So why not get out there and have a go, get some grow bags outside the back door and throw some potatoes in, what’s the worst that can happen.

Love what you do, do what you love, Joel

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The Bevel’s in the Detail

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My shed building season is soon to be upon me and it is time for me to get organised, my business has expanded, I have taken on more builds and I will be travelling between jobs this year. All of this means I will need to be mobile with portable equipment so I have designed a trustworthy and efficient tool kit that will fit into a backpack and this is what I will talking about today.
Most of the gear in this portable kit are hand tools, in fact I only have one power tool which is a drill driver. Don’t get me wrong, there will be power tools on site, but my own portable kit will allow me to do most jobs and will be smaller and lighter if I use a mixture of versatile and very specific hand tools. These days it is easy to become a little too reliant on power tools, (and I include myself in this) the modern tools are very impressive; we can all get seduced by new models with increased power and longer battery life. Power tools can certainly help to achieve a fast result, but it’s not always a new power tool you should be searching for, sometimes it is a new skill you need to be learning, power tools should be an addition to your hand tool kit, not a replacement for it.

Everyone has their own set of favourite tools for different reasons, and there are no rules, it is about becoming familiar with your equipment.* I love to see someone working well with a small sharp axe for example, and even getting used to something like stripping the bark of a branch with a knife, is going to make your hand and tools skills better, due in part to the increased concentration that follows painful cuts. OK. Let me give you a rundown of my portable kit. For those interested in the details, at the bottom of this blog are details as to why I carry around each of the tools featured.

Far left: Dewalt leather tool belt with Brimarc braces.shedblog-01-tools
Top row: Screw gun accessories left to right.
 Countersinks, Armeg Beaver drill, spare bit holders, hss & masonry drills, Wera screw bits with magnetic holder.
2nd row: Tool belt tools left to right.
 Dewalt DCD790D2, Stanley FatMax 8m Tape, Rexel Blackedge carpenters pencils Hard, Stanley FatMax Folding chisel, Nail Punch, Site multi tool quick release knife, Estwing weight forward 17oz  framing hammer.
3rd row: Hand tools left to right. Tajima pull saw, Stanley FatMax 450 box level, flat head screwdriver, Stanley compact chalk line, Fisco plastic roofers square, sliding bevel, Roughneck ratchet clamp.
Bottom Row: Personal gear left to right.
 Howard Leight folding ear guards, kevlar gloves, Petzel headtorch, snood, travel first aid & pain killers, Dewalt USB charger.
There is a certain philosophy involved in all of this; it is the skill that is important, not just with regards to the completion of the job, but also your connection to the tools and materials and ultimately your state of mind. You should become familiar with your hand tools, use them over and over until they become an extension of your hands. You should master the movements involved so they become instinctive, you should understand how much pressure to use, how much strength is required, the position of your tool, the position of your hands.  In any walk of life, there is nothing quite like seeing a person who uses a given tool with a sensitivity and accuracy that it becomes an extension of the hand itself.  When you grow more confident with your hand tools, you will become calmer and you will work better.

shedblog-02-backpackHand tools are the staple diet of carpentry, and there are certain hand tools I use right through the day, so I like to know they are going to serve me well and this is something that translates to other parts of life. I am always confused to see for example a person pull out an old cheap tape measure with a kink in it, and struggle with it over and over, day after day, exuding a relentless crapness. This job your doing, the time that passes whilst you are doing it, this is your time, it is your life. So why not get yourself something nice, get the best tool instead of the worst and then enjoy using it. Respect it and it will be good to you. That is what all this is about, respecting the time we have here on earth and expressing that respect with a love for what you do.
I’d be really happy to hear of tools you have used, your own kits and opinions, because everyone is different and it is good to share what you have enjoyed with other people.

Love what you do, do what you love. Joel

Here’s the details of all the tools in my portable kit.
Stanley Fat Max Back Pack. This one has a solid bottom, good strong straps and lots of compartments.
Dewalt leather tool belt with braces. I’ve owned this tool belt for over twelve years, it’s a great example of how spending more money on something of quality can save you money. Brimarc braces I found had clips wide enough to grip my thick tool belt and I find they help to keep some pressure off my lower back.
Counter sinks. I use a lot, but mostly for window and door frames. They help to avoid splitting wood by drilling a pilot hole, and sink the screw beneath the surface so it can be covered up.
Drill bit roll. (Armeg beaver drill bit, spare bit holders, hss and masonry bits) These  bits will do most jobs in my shed build. The beaver bit is great for drilling holes for wiring, spare bit holders are important should you drop one into next doors garden nettles, which is more common than you might think, and masonry bits, choose sizes that will fit wall plugs.
Wera drill bits and magnetic holder. I find these hard wearing, but I keep them for myself, if the labourer has poor technique I give him my slightly cheaper dewalt bits, the magnetic holder with these wera bits is really very useful. Sometimes in shed builds you can find yourself in precarious positions and are able to only to screw one handed, this wear drill bit will save you a lot of time and dropped screws.
My tool belt tools are the tools I will be using most often throughout the day on a shed build.
Dewalt DCD790D2 screw gun. this is the only power tool in my portable kit, but a great piece of kit. Technology changes fast, so this model like all models will become dated, but the principles for choosing a model will be the same. For me this is the best on the market for what I need right now. It is great to use, don’t underestimate how a balanced tool can help you. Brushless means the battery will last me a long time, it has a lot of power and although it has no hammer, it is smaller than the DCD795, which is what I wanted for a portable kit. I did consider an impact driver, but I wanted a chuck so I could use masonry bits.
FatMax 8m tape
. Most of my builds are around 5m x 3m so an 8m tape is all I need really. I find this one to be strong and will extend a long way, so I can use it without help.
Black edge hard pencils. Don’t forget to buy pencils, when I think of the time I have lost looking for a pencil to use, there are of course lots of pencils on the market, I just got used to buying these, they seem to last longer, especially the hard ones, carpenters pencils do not roll away should you need to be on a roof, and supposedly don’t follow the grain of the wood when marking out lines, I think it’s just nice to use a carpenters pencil, they feel nice in the hand.
FatMax fold away chisel. I just recently bought this, it’s handy to transport and fits into my tool belt nicely, important for hanging doors etc, but useful to have on you at all times for awkward bits of wood that need to be removed, this one has a nice metal strike point.
Nail punch. sometimes a forgotten tool, if you need to sink a nail beneath the surface of the wood, this is the only tool that will do it, so get one.

Site multi tool knife, this knife doesn’t have any particular quality, but it is a good example of a tool that you ‘just like’. I have got used to this knife, it fits nicely into my tool belt, and it has a strange mini saw which is not useful in itself, but the saw has a flat end and the amount of times it comes in handy is ridiculous, bespoke building is by nature not always predictable so sometimes a tool you know and like can be really valuable.
Estwing weight forward framing hammer. Some might say a hammer is just a hammer, I happen to like this 17oz framing hammer, I am not a massive guy but I find this hammer gives me enough beef to get most jobs done. The square strike point is great for squaring framing work but it is unbelievably painful when you hit your fingers. So don’t!
Tajima pull saw, a really nice saw to use, it fits into my back pack, pull saws are nice to use once you get used to them, they make logical sense in that the act of pulling means they are cutting whilst in tension instead of compression thus avoiding those awkward bendy saw moments.
FatMax 450 box level. its a nice size for my backpack, I find it to be sensitive which is a good thing and I’ve heard they are quite robust so it should last a while.

Flat head screw driver, the flat head bits for your screwgun are just not meant to be in my opinion. So I always have a screwdriver, one example is removing the old hinges from a second hand door.
FatMax compact chalk line. since my back pack will not carry a 2.4meter aluminium straight edge, the old faithful chalk line is still the best way to get a straight line of any distance.

Fisco plastic roofers square, essential for a quick square pencil mark or cut. I bought the plastic because whenever possible it’s good to try to keep the weight of my back pack down, this might sound a bit mad when you look at my hammer, but like I said, whenever possible.
Sliding bevel. still a great tool for finding an angle and using this angle to make cuts.
Roughneck ratchet clamp. I’ve been using this to help me work alone by keeping the wood still, it’s really quick to fix in place, I am considering getting the larger one though as this irritatingly doesn’t reach across two four by twos.

Fold away ear muffs, it’s nice to be able to pack these away, small things like packing tools away nicely at the end of the day when you are tired can make a real difference to your day.
Kevlar gloves. great for cold days, most wooly gloves will last around 5-6 minutes on a job, but these genuinely and rather unbelievably  last me all year!,
Petzel head torch. Petzel make the best head torches, it keeps your hands free and allows you to see in dark places, need I say more.
Snood. I use this primarily as a mask but it also keeps my neck warm in winter. I find as long as I don’t have a draft down my neck or my waist then I can work in pretty cold conditions. A better mask is a nice idea and important but I had a problem with using them, they can be uncomfortable, so I didn’t bother, the snood may not be the best filter, but it’s better than using nothing!
Travel first aid kit & painkillers. the most used first aid device on my site is basically masking tape, used to try and stick together a nasty gash so you can keep working or drive to hospital. But it’s a good idea to have antiseptic wipes and sterile tape to give you the best chance of healing quick.
Dewalt USB charger. This basically converts my Dewalt batteries into a phone charger. Good when you’re waiting for a delivery and forgot to charge your phone, not so good when people are pestering you to work and you just want to enjoy the job you’re on.

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