Rethinking the ‘DIY Obsession’

This is written in March 2016 and is a revision of the purpose of this blog. Originally I wanted to write about my work to restore [and develop] a Victorian house in Cardiff but then it changed to embracing horticulture in 2014 and then it stopped…

I had started to write a bit on LinkedIn in early 2016. This was about telling people that I had left my job of ten years. I wanted to write about it and see what the response would be. Did anybody really care? Would it be good for career to make a change? So far the reeption has been good – people are interested in people who care about things.

And so I have decided to split the blog into a few new sections to see if this helps to organise thoughts:

  • Inspiration – research and observations inspired by other people and places
  • Growing – horticulture, organisations, research and art
  • Material  – the house, places and art

Below is an image of me on the date of Sunday 6th March 2016. Mum was due to come over for the Mothers’ Day but she was ill and so I took this opportunity to use the space and time to re-think this blog.

Learning about plants & Latin names!

Part of learning about horticulture is the ability to identify a LOT of different trees and plants. Last time I got 8 / 10 in the test and so this time I aim for something similar or perhaps better. The only problem is that they have Latin names that are so abstract and hard to remember. For example:

This has needles...

This has needles…

This is called the Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’. Kind of resembles the Christmas tree and has atlant in the name. Ok, so the next one!

A bit like parsley in some ways

A bit like parsley in some ways

The one above is called Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ and so I must remember the japon bit as this relates to it coming from the Far East.

This one is white underneath but green on top

This one is white underneath but green on top

The third exhibit is called Abies koreana – so this must also come afrom a similar part of the World to the Cryptomeria.

AKA the monkey puzzle

AKA the monkey puzzle

This last one is very easy to identify, just need to remember it’s name has absolutely no links to the English language e.g. Arauccaria araucara… Surely these names must get more memorable? Please give me an ocean or a vague country name again!

The yew - isn't there a link to Joseph of Arimathea?

The yew – isn’t there a link to Joseph of Arimathea?

So the yew is otherwise known as Taxus baccata – can I link tax to Jesus to Joseph or maybe people link Glastonbury to tax and the yew tree apparently planted by the aforementioned Joseph… All very complicated. Let’s go for an easy one now!




Ok, so a golden colour and the river Rhein in Germany – let’s call this Thuya occidentalis. It’s at least from the occidental world so happy to make that connection to Germany.

Bit like a Christmas tree...

Bit like a Christmas tree…

This is the Picea pungers or ‘Koster’ – a slightly blue colour. The pic sounds a bit like the French word ‘pique’ to sting – the needles look sharp so let’s go for that as a link.

This one will smell like gin

This one will smell like gin

This is the Juniperus x pfitzerana – it’s dry and spiky and quite dark. The berries from similar trees contribute to a drink that I like…

A bright coloured leaf

A bright coloured leaf

This is the Cupressuss macrocarpa or ‘Goldcrest’. There’s a nice little write up on the RHS site – this one doesn’t grow too big but it does start to go golden.

Only one in a pot - can't get this wrong

Only one in a pot – can’t get this wrong

This is the Chamaecyparis pisfera or ‘Boulevard’. I must make a connection with a pissoir in Paris and pots.

Hoping for the best 🙂

Soil testing – what’s the pH value?

As part of the RHS course we have looked at soils types. We learned that soils were predominantly made up of up silt, sand and clay as well as minerals, water and organic matter – such as is described on BBC website.

This week I was especially eager to see where my garden’s soil lay on the acid to alkaline (pH) scale, especially as two weeks ago it was apparently too rich in organic matter to test for being clay, sand or silt.

The pH scale represented in colours

The pH scale represented in colours

It is important to understand pH as soil which is too acidic does not hold nutrients so well and, though one would expect that acid rots things, highly acidic soil does not allow organic matter to decompose. The guidance from the RHS is a simple starting point to understand.

Soil testing kit

Soil pH testing kit

The kit required for testing pH comprised of a test tube, some barium sulphate powder and a liquid solution. We put a bit of the powder in the test tube, then added some of the dried soil and topped up with the liquid before shaking.

And it's... pretty dark green

And it’s… pretty dark green

Looking at the colour of the solution I would say that my soil is approx 7.5 on the pH scale – meaning that it is pretty definitely alkaline. This will define what I can grow in my garden and I hope to write soon about what this means.

Story behind old wood carving planes

Alongside a load of trash in a junk shop last week I saw some interesting looking bits of wood. It turns out that they wood carving planes made by A. Mathieson & Son of Glasgow.


The blade cuts a curved groove int0 wood


These items seem to be in demand on the internet, with prices starting at more than four time the £2 I paid for each of my items and also going much higher. The more research I have done the more I realise that there were loads of different types of plane and that we don’t seem to cut wood so imaginatively these days.



The planes that I have bought seem to be of the hollow and round variety, so very very simple compared to tools which could cut an ogee shape.

It turns out the company who made this tools, Glasgow’s Mathieson & Son, went out of business in the 1950s. Quite often people would stamp their tools with their own names, in this case a ‘W Shorrock’. Unfortunately the internet does not provide me with any further detail of this person 😦


The owner was a ‘W. Shorrock’

Hoping to carve some interesting things in the future (or maybe hang them up on the wall as some sort of artistic display)

Inspired by Centre for Alternative Technology

My interest in DIY has always been about something deeper, rather than as a way of saving money. As such, it’s when I come to a place like the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) that I re-engage with the values underneath this sense of wonder and strengthen the desire to spend endless hours chiseling, digging or sanding.


Mum and Vicki

I took a trip there – Machynlleth in mid Wales – in October with my Mum and Vicki. We had a nice relaxing time looking around all the interesting buildings and hearing about the 40 years of history… as well as being tempted by the cakes (which were also pretty healthy I think).


What got me really interested was how complicated concepts were broken down and made simple. For example in the image above we have a roof with a number of panels on it.

As you read across along the line of panels, they are modified slightly; going from being shiny to black and then eventually to be covered by a glass screen. This explains how heat is retained – and therefore how the simplest of solar water heating systems work. I quite liked how the kettle (below) linked to the pipework. I assume that steam comes out when it’s all connected up?!?


There are lots of other examples to point out, but this place gives the sense that a more environmentally-sustainable life is possible. I also liked the way that different construction techniques used in the WISE building were explained. For example, that cork can be used as an insulating material.


I leave CAT having learned a lot about how ideas can be developed and implemented – and also that a kettle uses loads more precious more energy than we think…

What do in the garden this October

I have been on my RHS Horticulture course for over a month now. Every week seems to be slightly different to the one before. We’ve now got past the stage of identifying different genus and species, or learning to pot cuttings and sort seeds, to having some theory.

Sorting seeds

Sorting seeds

This week’s course was about propagation and how plants propagate – or spread. The idea of plants coming from seeds (sexual propagation) always made sense to me, but then we learned about vegetative propagation, for example ‘division’ of an existing plant to take cuttings. What really started to get me thinking was about the roots of plants ‘layering’ under the ground. Apparently oak trees are frequently connected underground so that smaller trees clone the original.

A more decorative acer grafted on to one with a stronger stem system

A more decorative acer grafted on to one with a stronger stem system

I may start to be getting my facts wrong here, but one thing that I have real proof of is that some plants get grafted on to each other. The image (above) is of an acer in my garden. In the foreground there is a purple coloured acer whilst at the bottom of the stem is a much larger green leaf. My tutor confirmed that the green leaf belongs to a species with a much stronger stem and that the purple leaf is a more decorative species which has a weak stem. I’ve been recommended to cut off the green leaves so that the purple ones receive more nutrients. It is interesting to find this out as I had thought my plant to be a mutant….

Otherwise, I continue to take inspiration from Mum’s garden. In the image below she is telling me  about a plant that I can’t really remember now as the name is hard to remember. She tells it with enthusiasm and it is down to her that I am even following the course.

Mum in her garden in Newport

Mum in her garden in Newport

I learned that I need to do the following in the next week or so:

  • Prune the top third of my roses
  • Feed any fruit trees or bushes – they will need to be strengthened for the winter
  • Take any hard wood cuttings

Happy gardening

A New Porch with Stained Glass

Walking and jogging the streets of Pontcanna and Canton you will see a lot of Victorian and Georgian-era terraced properties with little porches just inside the front door. Many people seems to leave the outer doors open which in turn reveal stained glass above the interior door.

I decided that both the porch and the stained glass window were needed for my house and so the journey began and something caught my eye when I went to Theodore Reclamation in Bridgend to look for some ‘new old’ doors to replace the paper-thin ones that I had inherited.

Upside-down door of a door

Upside-down door of a door

What I found was the top half of a door that had been cut in half at some point; I guess the structure was the wrong way up because the glass would have completely fallen out had it been the other way up. Trying not to come across as too excited, I secured the piece for a bargain prices and took it home.

Window sitting above the door frame

Window sitting above the door frame

Dad and I manoeuvered the glass into position and then attached to the wall and frame below. There has since been a large amount of work to get the glass back in (bending the lead back into place) as well as lots of filling and repainting, but the overall effect is really pleasing with a mid grey surround.

Lit from behind

Lit from behind – as you come into the house

I really like the way that the glass creates slight ripples of reflection on the ceiling; especially strong at night time.

Hallway from inside the house

Hallway from inside the house

There’s still more work to do to tidy the paint up, but I really like the overall effect compared to what it looked like when I bought the house (below) and I’ve even managed to clear away the junk mail.

Hallway first view

I Hallway first view

Getting horticultural with RHS course!

Last week I started a 33-week RHS Level 2 horticulture course at Pencoed College near Bridgend. It turns out that this is one of very few courses available in south Wales, so glad I got a place.

I have to do homework between sessions i.e. learn species so I thought the blog would be a good place to start writing things down and develop my knowledge. So these are the 11 species that we need to learn by next week; to satisfy the Royal Horticultural Society it seems that we need to know 200!

1 - Zelkova serrata

1 – Zelkova serrata

The first word refers to the genus of the plant and the second is the species – in this case ‘serrat’ means that it has serrated edges to the leaves.

2 - Acer campestre

2 – Acer campestre

It seems that the acer is a pretty popular plant – this is often called the ‘field maple’ – though we have to stick to the Latin… Note the little wings (yellow in colour) which help to transport the seed.

3 - Ginko biloba

3 – Ginko biloba

Biloba means two lobes from each stem – which is evident…

4 - Quercus rubra

4 – Quercus rubra

This is a red oak tree – generally requires warm conditions and grows much more quickly than the indigenous oak

5 - Acer palmatum

5 – Acer palmatum

An acer with a leaf which looks like a palm

6 - Sorbus aucuparia

6 – Sorbus aucuparia

This is commonly called the ‘Joseph rock’ – the leaves grow in an alternate pattern i.e. one opposite the other

7 - Fagus sylvatica

7 – Fagus sylvatica

A very British tree – the common beech

8 - Liriodendrum tulipifera

8 – Liriodendrum tulipifera

This one has quite a cute name – with both a leaf shaped like a tulip and a tulip-like flower also

9 - Castanea sativa

9 – Castanea sativa

This is the sweet chestnut – it needs dry souls and apparently produces good timber

10 - Juglans regina

10 – Juglans regina

The common walnut – you can just see one very green looking nut

11 - Parotia persica

11 – Parotia persica

This seemed to be the one that nobody could remember. It turns out that the ‘persica’ refers to its origins as a plant which comes from Persia aka Iran or the wider Middle East.

The next post should be a bit more wordy!

Red is the colour (for plants at least)

Sometimes you learn things which take absolutely ages to filter trough. One thing I heard at least a month ago, but have only just really understood, concerns filtering and the way that light is filtered.

My Dad has an allotment in Newport; a community of gardeners who swap plants as well as advice. I had the chance to meet Adrian (pictured below). One of the really interesting things that Adrian conveyed to me was that plants, with their stems and leaves being generally green, prefer to be located near to things which are red.

Adrian the gardening guru

Adrian the gardening guru

He explained something along the lines of reddish colours being the inverse of the greenish colours; which means that light reflected from reddish things will be absorbed by plants, rather than being bounced back as would happen as if located next to something green. The green colour is comes from chlorophyll – all explained here.

So the important thing is to look at the colour wheel below to understand which colours are opposite each other. For example, a yellow would be the inverse of violet or a deep red would be the counterpart to green. There’s a really nice blog article here by another from person in Wales!!

Colour wheel

Colour wheel

So that’s the theory. I followed these rules to create a place  in my garden (on top of the red compost bin)  for some of my tomato plants to grow. I think it has really worked because the tomatoes in this location have grown much better than the ones in an equally-sunny location. I’ve also noticed that courgette plants next to a brick wall are my most healthy plants.

Courgette plant next to brick - very healthy leaves and stem

Courgette plant next to brick – very healthy leaves and stem

Nice to learn from other people 🙂

The Good Life with Home-grown Veg

We’ve had a great summer so far in the UK – even in normally-rainy Wales. Though we’ve been lucky with the weather I’ve also been lucky to have some guidance from my Mum and Dad as well as some plants donated by Rachael my neighbour and others.

I started my putting things like tomatoes in pots and placing them in sunny spots. The tomatoes in the image below would ripen much better in a greenhouse but look healthy in this sunshine.

Tomatoes gently ripening up against the bright white wall

Tomatoes gently ripening up against the bright white wall

The main planting area is the east facing area in front of a fence. Last summer this patch had the remains of a privet hedge and the soil was full of a century-worth of rubbish like nail varnish and gin bottles! I dug up everything and started again with the create of a pyramid structure for the runner beans and subsequent planting in May.

The runner bean pyramid, brassicas and companion planting

The runner bean pyramid, brassicas and companion planting

I’m really pleased with the runner beans – the plant seems to carry on growing and I’m sure it will soon be growing along the top of the fence.

Runner beans - just starting to be ready

Runner beans – just starting to be ready

Slightly lower to the ground are the French beans. These seem to need very little attention, though I think they are happy if they are propped up a bit by sticks in the ground. I’ve used plastic-coasted plant rings from Wilko – they are very cheap and easy to use.

French beans - which got passed over the fence from neighbour Rachael

French beans – which got passed over the fence from neighbour Rachael

My other growing area is the south-facing back of the house with some courgettes and potatoes growing in bags. The courgettes have had some weeks where they’ve been very successful and others where they’ve not done a great deal. It will be interested to see whether the plants on top of the compost bin (which should get more sunlight) outperform the ones closer to the ground.

Courgette plant - these amazing yellow flowers precede the vegetables

Courgette plant – these amazing yellow flowers precede the vegetables

Happy growing everybody!