Browsing Posts published in January, 2013

We can relax now. 31/01/13

Yesterday, the weather really was truly awful.

It was cold, wet (obviously), and worst of all was the wind.  Just walking over to The Plots, I was nearly blown horizontal, and my snug, woollen hat was nearly blown off more than once.

Extra exciting was the way the wind caught the sharp hail and then threw it upwards into your face and eyes.

The polite word for it?  …Hmmm…  “Exhilarating.”  Yes, that’s polite enough, I feel, and kind of gives you a taste for those ice crystal in your eyes.

When I finally made it down there, there really wasn’t much happening, or even much we could usefully do.

It was far too windy to even put a tethered-down gazebo up, so myself, Matt, Jon and Gary huddled in the metal shed.

Of course, drinking tea!

We shut up shop early: there were obviously no more volunteers to be had -it was far too miserable.

On getting home last night, I quickly took a shower -mainly to warm up!- then checked the weather for today.  And it looked much better.

And it was!

I arrived just before 10.00, opened up and got the kettle on.  PXI Nick then arrived just as I was deep into a phone call with Diane.

Diane has been “skating on the ice”, and broken something major in her left leg.  Major enough to keep her from The Plots.

So, I’ve been drafted in to handle the allotment side of things while she recovers.  That doesn’t mean she’s being idle, though!  She’ll be doing much-needed paperwork while her leg heals fully.

After the phone call, Nick and I got on with the Morrisons Project up on our banking below the road. We’d been instructed to carry on with the top path, made using long branches, wooden stakes, and all other manner of stuff found around our site.The New Path

Here it is just after we’d started on the right.

Previously, Diane and volunteers had done the far end of it, but we had to do this end, putting the new stakes in, then ‘back filling’ with long lengths of wood, then smaller stuff.

P1000974And we made great progress!  Here you can see Nick carefully tamping down the sticks and twigs to provide a suitable base for the top layers.

Pretty soon, Jon, Matt and Gary arrived, then Sara, so after a quick cup of tea, we carried on, and with the five of us ‘lads’, work progressed at an astonishing rate of knots.

While Matt and Jon got smaller branches to put in the bottom, Gary and I barrowed partially rotted privet clippings from various builders’ bags scattered around the site.

Nick had to go soon after midday, so the four of us carried on, until there was a plaintive ‘Miaooooow!’

It was little Mitzi-Moos, bless her!

While the lads carried on, I went to feed her -obviously, you’ve got to get your priorities right!

She had a little food, but then was much more interested in ‘having a chat’ with me.  We’ll, she had lots to tell me, for I haven’t seen her in literally months!Mitzi-Moos!

I managed to get my camera out without her literally knocking it out of my hands.

And to the right here is the result.

Whilst I was making a huge fuss of her, I surreptitiously checked her over, and she appears to be in fine condition.  Glossy coat, bright eyes, and look rather portly, even when you consider she’s wearing her ‘winter coat’ (…’Fur is soooo ‘in’ this season, Daahhling’…). so we can relax.  Mitzi, our beloved Honorary Vice-ChairCat is safe and well.  Phew!

Anyway, soon after this, long-time LEAF friend and helper, Carol came down to help Sara in the greenhouse, clearing out the old chili plants, so for today at least, we were a big happy family.

The next session is not while Saturday, and once again, I’ve checked the weather, and it’s set to be sunny & bright, but a little on the chilly side.

So, we’ll just have to keep busy!

More soon!

Not again! 26/01/13


Last night, just as the weathermen said, it snowed again.  This time it was huge, great flakes, which over the course of four or so hours, ended up being fairly deep.

Of course, by European and USA standards, it was only a light dusting, but to we British, being notoriously poor in snow, it was an excuse for all the idiot drivers to come out and see the most inconvenient place they could get stuck.

One utter moron decided that halfway up my hill, he’d abandon his car, sideways in the middle of the carriageway, on a main bus route!

Word fail me, they really do.

Anyway, back to matters in hand: The Plots.

As you can imagine, there’s been nothing whatsoever happening on our Plots just recently.

If it stays dry, we might just be able to get on there on Wednesday.  If we do manage this, of course, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, I’ve been making great strides with the second bike box for TradeBase.  I know it doesn’t sound a lot, but I’ve finally managed to substantially brighten the LED displays.  In fact, so much so that they’re still visible with my anglepoise lamp shining right on them.  I just have to make another 7 circuits (35 resistors, 14 transistors), and they’ll be ready to go.  Phew!

Other news is that Ian (no relation) has given me a cheap ALBA 14″ flatscreen TV he was given some time ago and had kicking around his flat.  This has an HDMI video input socket, so I wasted no time today when I got it back in hooking up my ‘almost forgotten’ Raspberry Pi computer.  And it works a treat!

When the weather gets warmer (…which seems like it never will…), this brings up real possibilities of having the Pi down at The Plots in the top shed.  It can be hooked up to all manner of electronics for environmental monitoring and all kinds of other exciting stuff.

Well.  It’s exciting to me.  Watch this space for details.

…And keep watching this space for details as we all crawl out from under our collective duvets and see what kind of havoc the weather has played on our Plots!

Deep & Crisp & Even. 22/01/13

Yes, it snowed, and snowed, and snowed, and…  …you get the drift.

(Sorry.  Didn’t mean that awful pun.)

Today, in the morning at least, it was clear, bright and sunny, and I just wish I’d been able to get over The Plots to get some photos of the trees.  Even at midday, all the branches on the trees around here were still laden with snow -no signs of a thaw.

So as you can imagine, there’s been absolutely nothing doing down at our allotments.  With snow on the ground, and certainly for a couple of days afterwards, there’s absolutely nothing you can do.  At the moment, the ground will be frozen solid, and even when it thaws, until all the excess water drains away, the soil will be far too wet and ‘claggy’ to work, or even turn over.

Instead, we’ve been planning -always fun.  Where to plant what, and that kind of thing.

Of course, this will be depending on the weather…


Let’s just hope for a good, long and dry summer, eh?

More soon…

…There will be snow.

And there is!

For once, our valiant weather crews have made a 100% call here.  It is currently snowing, and if the weather forecast is to be believed, it won’t stop snowing ’til at least next Tuesday!

This kind of puts a hole in our plans for finishing off the banking by the road.

It’s also doubtful as to whether there will be a LEAF session tomorrow!

Certainly, if it keeps on the way it is, then I don’t think Diane will be able to travel all the way from Chesterfield to open up.

(Diane is a superb driver, and I’m not in any way doubting her abilities, it’s all the other er, ‘people’ who suddenly decide that they really, really need to buy milk.  And the corner shop is a mere 100 yards away, but it’s far too cold and snowy to walk.  Hey!  Let’s take the car!)

And they promptly get stuck in three inches of snow in bottom gear, revving the engine like mad and skidding everywhere.

We British just do not know how to drive in the snow.  Fact.

Anyway, I’ll be ringing Diane before 9.00am tomorrow to tell her the state of the Sheffield roads.

If I’m feeling particularly stir-crazy back here at Wardian Towers, I may well scoot over to LEAF and feed our cat, Mitzi-Moos.  I may take my camera, and if the weather’s not too grim, I’ll see if I can get a shot or two of our Plots.

Hopefully chat with you after then!

So last Friday morning, I was all fired up, looking forward to testing a slow cooker on the new bike box through the 240 Volt output.

You’ll remember I said that a slow cooker takes much less power than say, a kettle.  It does.  Whereas a kettle takes a full 13 Amps at 240 Volts -that’s a little over 3 thousand Watts, a slow cooker, on the other hand, takes a mere 200 Watts.

But doing the math, 200 Watts @ 12 Volts still draws 16.66 Amps.  This would completely drain a fully-charged, standard car battery of 50 Amp/Hours in 3 hours.  Not good.

I also found by experiment that turning the slow cooker on, even to ‘low’ made the inverter squeal in disgust, while my multimeter, rated at a mere 10 Amps had a not-so-quiet fit.  The leads to it got pretty warm as well!

So, a bit of a dilemma going on here…

…Enter a 400 Watt, 240 Volt mains lighting dimmer, freshly purchased from ‘Wickes’ -our not-so-local DIY store.  (B&Q, my preferred choice, hadn’t got any.)

I built a ‘rig’, consisting of a standard 13 Amp plug, a piece of wire, the dimmer switch and a spare 13 Amp mains socket.  I then connected it up so the new dimmer circuit was between the box and the slow cooker.  This meant I could ‘dim’ (i.e. Reduce the power to) the slow cooker by turning the ‘brightness’ up and down.  …Tremendous fun!

(…Of course, I felt completely safe doing this.  The slow cooker has no electronics to speak of inside it, so I wasn’t running the risk of blowing, say, a switch mode power supply by giving it lower power than it was used to.  Switch modes can get very, very upset if you try this…)

…And the results were encouraging!

I found I could wind up the dimmer to about 85% before things started complaining, and that was taking a mere 9.1 Amps at 12 Volts.  This works out at a snitch under 110 Watts.

Would it be enough to heat a stew or soup?

Well, to be honest, I can’t answer that because I didn’t have it on long enough, but when I put the cooker onto ‘warm’ (…i.e. ‘Keep Warm’…), even without my Heath-Robinson power control, that took only 4 Amps.

This tells me that it should be able to warm up a pot full of stew quite nicely.

By reducing the current to the cooker, it increases the battery life to about 5 1/2 hours.

Of course, this is if no-one is cycling and putting power back into the battery at the same time.

When I finally get this box and the slow cooker down to LEAF, you can bet your life there’ll be cyclists!

(Even if I have to drag them from the road nearby.)

…And back to the new box…

…I mentioned that it ‘just needed a FET’ to be complete.

Ha!  How wrong can one man be?  Yes, I changed the FET and made some other additions to the earthing circuit, but realised that the displays were nowhere near bright enough for outdoor use.  This has meant that I’ve had to build another, much smaller board only having 16 transistors and about 40 resistors on.  This board takes the +5 Volt output from the PIC and converts it into a +12 Volt signal coming directly from the battery.

This means there is now no ‘stress’ on the PIC, and I can adjust the brightness accordingly.  If it’s still too dim, then I’ll wind the current up some more.

Of course, this has brought further ‘challenges’.

The ‘Reset’ button, at the moment, merely stops the processor, then when the button is released, sets it going ‘from the top’ again.

As you hold the reset button down, one, or more, of the LED’s are on.

But, if I’m whacking too much current down the LED’s for too long a time, then these will blow.


This means I have to rewire -and reprogram- the reset button to be on another leg of the PIC.  When the PIC realises that this leg has gone low, then it will simply halt everything -including the display routines- then start ‘from the top’ again.

So, while the second box is not quite done, it’s certainly a couple of steps nearer.

Tomorrow, I plan to carry on, and don’t worry.  I have photos of the new board to show you.

(* In answer to the question posed in the title:  Because then it wouldn’t be fun.)

More science fun. 10/01/13

I’m currently just putting the finishing touches to another ‘electric bicycle trainer’ for our good, good friends at Trade Base.

They took a good look at ours, and immediately wanted one.  Now, this was quite a few months ago, and since then I’ve been building it in my ‘spare time’. (…Ha!  Wassat, then?..)

It’s now very near completion -just a FET to change, and when it’s done, unlike ours, it will have a 240 Volt mains socket on it.

Now, this 240 Volt output won’t be able to power much more than a phone charger, battery drill charger, or other low-current device.  It certainly won’t be able to boil a kettle, but is perfectly adequate for running LED lighting and the like from.

However, after this evening’s management meeting, Diane and I were discussing options, and, well, stuff.

At one point, she had an idea of running a 240 Volt slow cooker from a bike box.

What an absolutely brilliant idea!!  Slow cookers take much less juice than, say, a kettle.

This means on a Saturday, we can prep stuff up in a morning, then by close of play, it’ll all be done and piping hot; ready to eat!


…Tomorrow morning, I’ll finish off the Trade Base box, then run a series of tests on it to see exactly how much ‘juice’ it uses when powering a slow cooker.  This will involve measuring the current being drawn out of the battery from cold, then monitoring it as it gets up to temperature, then measuring how much it takes just keeping the food warm.

If all goes well, we’ll be able to ‘properly’ test it over at our Plots this Saturday.  If that goes well, I have another ‘Slightly Pranged’ 240 Volt converter that just needs a couple of switching FETs in it, and I’ll then ‘retro-fit’ that inverter into ‘our’ bike box.

Who said ‘domestic science’ (…or whatever they call it nowadays…) was boring?

Slightly different topic, but still ‘electrickery’-related.

Many, many years ago, when I was just a wee small boy, my dad bought me a Ladybird book; ‘making a Transistor Radio’.

It was a how-to book, written in that inimitable Ladybird style.  Starting with just a long length of wire for an aerial, a coil, a tuning condenser (…’vari-cap’ in modern language…), a cat’s whisker (…diode…) and a good earth, it showed you how to make a true ‘crystal set’.  No batteries, no integrated circuits.

Now, my allotment is the required length to string up an aerial.  And there’s plenty of ‘good earths’ to be had by simply whacking a metal pole into the ground…

…I wonder if one of our junior volunteers (…Step up, Jordan!..) would like to learn to do ‘proper’ electronics?

I’ll run it by him on Saturday…

Possibly a litte smoother.

‘What??!!’  I hear you shout.

Dear Reader, this site is now fully responsive, and the ‘smooth’ refers to just how easily it all changed over.

Now, it doesn’t matter what you read this site on, you’ll still be able to see it without zooming in and endless scrolling.

Those Good Folks over at WordPress have written a free plug-in that automatically senses what size screen you’re viewing this on, and adjusts accordingly.  Bless!

And there was me thinking I’d have to delve into the dark, dank and murky underworld that is JavaScript and other server-side nastiness.


More soon!

Big Changes Ahead… 06/01/13

Ah, don’t worry.

These are changes to this website, nothing else.

Over the coming days, but hopefully not weeks, I’ll be changing the way this website looks.


Well, I’ve realised that to keep up with The Web, and particularly the way people access our site, it needs to be ‘Responsive’.

By this, I mean that I want it to be readable on everything from a +80″ OLED (Organic LED) monitor, right down to a smartphone with a tiny screen.

This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me on this, it is!

At the moment, if you access these pages from a smartphone, then yes, they’ll come up, but you would need to zoom in and endlessly scroll to be able to read it.  This will very soon change!

There’ll be glitches along the way, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

Should be fun!

Stay tuned for details…

What? No rain?! 05/01/13

Difficult to believe, but today the clouds have not opened on us!  Okay, it was very dull and grey, but as I said last night, there was no rain, and today we were blessed by loads of volunteers, all happy to get ‘stuck in’.

At this time of year, what with there being virtually nothing growing, no weeds to pull, and the ground being so wet, there wasn’t much we could do ground-wise, but that didn’t stop volunteers getting their hands dirty with ‘infrastructure’ jobs.

While Jordan, Diane and I carried on clearing fallen leaves from the banking, Derek carried on building a bench above The Orchard Plot.P1000942

Double click on the image to the right here, and you’ll see it in all its glory.

Last year, Ian (no relation) and I had done some work up there, and remarked on how those longer stumps to the rear of the bench would be great for some kind of seat.

We’d envisaged just some humble planking strung between those two uprights.

But Derek had other, much grander ideas!

Diane and I got a chance to sit on it before it was painted by the kids, and I can certainly say that this bench is going nowhere!P1000940

To the left here is one of the girls applying the first of many coats of ‘our’ standard coloured external, water-based, wood preservative.

During all the excitement of trying out the new bench, I slipped away down to my plot 34, right down the lane.

Now, towards the end of last year, I was tremendously busy doing other, far more boring, stuff.  Who would look after my Plot?

Luckily, Gary, one of LEAF’s longest-serving volunteers said he’d keep it for me whilst I was away.

And keep it he certainly did!

The man really is a ‘Human Digger’!P1000934

To the right here is just one of the beds he’s dug over and carefully weeded.

I know I don’t like using the word, but the only one that springs to mind is: ‘Awesome’.

But where was my favourite olive tree?

I looked around, panicking that he’d somehow mistaken it for a weed and it was now dying in a compost heap somewhere.

But I needn’t have worried!P1000931

I just did a quick 180, and there it was, safe and sound, right by the side of the sitting area, and with more leaves on it than ever.


After a hasty lunch, work continued apace with Matt and Pam arriving and getting straight down to work, and as I left late this afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that Pam had already moved most of the chrysanthemums out of their ‘summer bed’ into the greenhouse.  Here these will safely winter, so in early spring she can take cuttings from them ready to replant out in late spring.

Hopefully, this year they’ll have some decent weather in which to bloom!

All too soon it was time for me to head home, but as I left, there was the happy sound of laughter and banter across our plots.

Now, after the inevitable snow, could we PLEASE have some decent weather?!

Thankfully, Christmas and the New Year are now finally out of the way, and we can get back to some semblance of ‘normality’ round here.  Whatever that is.

Tomorrow, the weather looks set to be fine and unseasonably warm, so hopefully we’ll have plenty of volunteers, all eager to shed a few calories from those mince pies and extra helpings of trifle over the Christmas period.

This next year looks set to be even busier than last year.  Hopefully, the weather will be much kinder to us, and from the plans and discussions we’ve had, both in the management meetings, and actually down on The Plots themselves, we’ll be hoping for a bumper year with loads happening and loads to do.

Over this holiday period, LEAF management has been busy with the Sheffield BeeBuddies Project.

Following from the successes of last season, BeeBuddies is expanding, both in the number of hives and sites it operates, but also, in the very near future, will be offering training courses for the public.  These will be for those who wish to learn more about these fascinating little creatures.

The initial half-day ‘taster’ sessions will be a gentle introduction into the art of beekeeping, and if the weather is fine, attendees will be able to get ‘suited up’ and go out to one of our hives, open it up and see the bees at work.

There will hopefully be further more in-depth courses, aimed at those wishing to study further, and maybe get their own hives for their garden.

You may want to visit that link above and maybe bookmark it, as it will be growing and changing all the time.

More very soon…

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