Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I'm Not The Pheasant Plucker...

Whenever I pass a sign saying "Farm Shop" I can't resist going in. Today I saw one saying "Farm Shop - Ducks and Pheasants £1.50 each". What would you have done?

It's the end of the shooting season and the owner needed to get rid of lots of locally shot game ASAP. So I picked up a brace of pheasants for £3, as well as instructions on how to prepare them. They're hanging in the garage waiting for my dad to come on Friday. I think he'll enjoy roast pheasant for his dinner, and I'm really looking forward to plucking and dressing them because I've never done that before.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cash Crop

Tom: "Mum, on our allotment, can we plant coca?"
Mum: "I beg your pardon!"
Tom: "Coca, can we plant coca?"
Mum: "Well I suppose we could quickly raise some money to buy a smallholding that way, but I think it needs a higher altitude than we have here in North Cheshire. So no, not really. Why do you ask?"
Tom: "So we can make our own chocolate"
Mum (relieved): "Oh, you mean cacao."

Monday, January 29, 2007

Down On The Allotment

We spent some time on the allotment at the weekend, planting soft fruit bushes. We planted:

8 canes of the summer fruiting raspberry Malling Leo

8 canes of the autumn fruiting raspberry Autumn Bliss

1 thornless blackberry, Black Satin

1 loganberry (variety not specified)

1 redcurrant bush (variety not specified)

1 soft fruit bush of some kind but nobody knows what it is because the label fell off, so I shall call it "mystery soft fruit bush" and hope it's a blackcurrant

My husband, Ed, got them for me for Christmas, hence the uncertainty about the mystery fruit bush. He bought a selection of soft fruit from the garden centre, but he can't remember exactly what he got. They all look like dead twigs at the moment anyway. Still, it will be a nice surprise when it finally fruits. Watch this space.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Whole Different Ball Game

Eco laundry balls didn't stand up to the test, performing no better than plain water in our highly rigorous (ahem) Bean Sprouts lab. Since then I have used neither eco balls nor laundry powder in any of my washes, and my clothes still get clean to my satisfaction. But what about dryer balls?

These claim to soften laundry without adding liquid softener, and also reduce drying times. Are these claims true? I tested them and the results were surprising.

I washed a normal laundry load as usual and dried it with the laundry balls. I have a sensing tumble dryer that stops automatically when the clothes are dry. It took 1 hour 35 minutes to dry the laundry with the balls.

I then rewashed the same load and dried it again, without the balls. It took 2 hours 22 minutes. That's 50% longer, which astonished me. Obviously you can save significant energy using the dryer balls.

As for softness, I washed two identical towels together, and dried one with the dryer balls, one without. This time the balls failed the test. Both towels felt equally soft to the touch, and came out equally fluffy when folded. However my clever sensing dryer also has a reverse tumble feature, meaning it changes direction every now and then. It claims to reduce static, tangling and stiffness. This could have wiped out any softening effect of the balls. Or then again maybe they just don't make clothes softer. I'd be interested to see how the balls perform in a standard dryer.

One thing the balls don't do is scent your laundry. When you buy them they have a lavender fragrance that fades after only a few uses. If you like the smell of softener then you may not like the balls. But I hate the strong sickly perfumes in washing powders and fabric softeners, so for me the lack of scent is a distinct plus.

I'd say the dryer balls are worth the money, because they substantially reduce drying times even if they don't soften clothes. But remember that you can save even more money and energy if you dry clothes on a line instead.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ways With Cabbage

This time of year can be pretty challenging for people who grow their own, or insist on local veg. Trying to subsist on swedes, cabbages and leeks and little else for months on end can be pretty trying. I'm OK with the swedes potatoes and leeks - you can make mash with plenty of butter or cream and lots of salt and pepper so at least it doesn't taste so damned healthy. Or you can make soup from them and keep it interesting by adding different beans, noodles, dumplings, croutons, or serve it with different kinds of home-made bread (I'm on a big soda bread kick at the moment - more on that in a future post).

But cabbage is a problem. I'm with Hedgie on this one. I'm just not a big fan of cabbage, and I admit I've flung a few of them to the chickens in desperation when my kitchen seems to be taken over by more cabbages than I care to eat. The chickens seem to like them as long as you can figure out how to suspend the cabbages so they don't just get trampled into the mud.

I have found the secret to making cabbage a pleasure is to cut out the tough central veins on each leaf and shred what's left into really fine ribbons - 1/8" or so. It's the mouthful of tough chewy cabbage that gets me down.

Once you've done that there are a few things you can do to make really delicious dishes with cabbage. I like stir frying it - I had a lovely vegetarian stir fry the other day with julienne swede, finely shredded cabbage and leeks cut into sticks rather than rings. I fried some garlic and ginger up with it too. Then I put on plenty of soy sauce and a little sesame oil and served it with noodles. It would have been even better with some soy sauce marinaded chicken but I didn't have any.

Staying with the Chinese theme, if you finely shred savoy cabbage and deep fry it with slivers of garlic, then drain it and serve with lots of sea salt, that's exactly how they make the stuff they call "seaweed" in Chinese restaurants. I don't make this any more because a) I haven't owned a deep fryer in years and b) when I tried it I found it tricky getting the cabbage properly crispy but not burned.

You can stir fry cabbage without going all oriental. I like to fry strips of onion in olive oil until they're soft, then add shredded cabbage and shedloads of black pepper. Don't think "seasoning" think "flavouring", like steak au poivre. It's supposed to smell strongly of aromatic black pepper. With some buttery nutmeg swede mash and some tasty sausages and onion gravy you won't be wishing for summer peas and lettuce, you'll be revelling in delicious winter food.

Or you can steam your shredded cabbage with some fennel seeds. Remove the rind from a lemon and squeeze the juice. Finely shred the rind and cream it into some butter along with the lemon juice, sea salt and a moderate amount of black pepper, them stir the lemon butter into the steamed cabbage. Our veggie family likes this with a vegetable quiche, and perhaps some mashed spuds. But I'm sure it would also accompany chicken or fish very well.

But our family's favourite use for cabbage is the legendary Baked Cabbage with Nuts and Cheese.

Baked Cabbage with Nuts and Cheese
Shred a cabbage (usually a white cabbage but it works with a Savoy as well) and boil. Make cheese sauce with a strong-flavoured cheese, and thin it out with some of the cabbage cooking water. Season well with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and lots of freshly grated nutmeg. Mix with the strained cabbage and a generous handful of salted peanuts. Bung it in an ovenproof dish with more cheese and nuts and nutmeg on top and bake in a moderate oven until the top is golden.

Believe me, this is one of the best things you will ever put in your mouth. This is the dish that has converted fundamentalist carnivores to vegetarianism. You know the people who always quip "This would be nice with a pork chop"? Serve this to them and it will shut them up. You won't believe cabbage could taste so good.

You don't believe me, do you? You're thinking "It's cheesy cabbage. So what? Sounds rubbish." Try it. I double-dare you. Then come back here and tell me if I lied to you about the best thing you ever put in your mouth, or not.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Bless You

My sister Stephanie sent me some hand-made recycled real hankies. I must confess we mostly blow our noses on kitchen roll or Handy Andies. We choose 100% recycled kitchen roll, but the Handy Andies are made from virgin woodpulp, and both are probably chlorine bleached which produces organochlorines and dioxins that are just evil. Well no more. It's real hankies for us from now on, and lovingly hand-made real hankies recycled from my beautiful God-daughter's old clothes at that.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Review: Soap Maker's Companion

Sometimes I like to make things because it's cheaper than buying them, and sometimes I like to make things because I can make them better than I can buy. But mainly I like to make things because I just like knowing how. I get a huge kick out of thinking "I can do that" for as wide a range of things as possible. I think that's the reason I love to make soap.

One of my favourite soapmaking books is The Soap Maker's Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch. It has detailed enough instructions to be excellent as a beginners' book, but also plenty of information that would be of interest to a more experienced soapmaker. It wasn't my first soap making book, but I learned a lot from it that isn't explained anywhere else.

The batch sizes are on the large side, which some beginners might find offputting but in fact large batches are a lot more likely work well than small batches. This is because slight inaccuracies in weighing are more significant in small batches, and they also lose heat quicker than large batches which can lead to problems.

There are no photographs, but I love the quirky line drawings and woodcut-style illustrations. In fact "quirky" is a good word to describe this book, along with "earthy" - two of my favourite adjectives. The recipe names will give you a flavour of what I mean; "Build Me a Buttercup", "Down the Garden Path", "Blowin' in the Wind Laundry Soap". The recipes I have tried have all turned out very well, and there are plenty of tempting recipes I want to try in future. I have several soap-making books but this is definitely my favourite, and I'd recommend it to complete beginners and old hands alike.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Unexpected Benefits of Washing at 30°

One of the unexpected benefits of washing at 30° (apart from saving over 40% of the energy used for the wash cycle) is that when your daughter leaves a sparkly pink lipstick in her pocket, it doesn't get hot enough to melt and cover all the supposedly-clean clothes with sparkly pink grease.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why Organic?

My dad asked why we bothered pulling all the couch grass out by hand, rather than just zapping it all with weedkiller. I love this kind of question because it prompts me to think clearly about my philosophy and the basis for my actions.

There are lots of reasons why I choose to garden organically. One of them is much more important than the others, and I will come to that last.
  1. It costs money - the people who rented that plot before us told me they sprayed £60 of weedkiller on it. And it's still full of weeds. I can only imagine it would be even worse if they hadn't but still, it cost Ed and I nothing to entirely clear a quarter of it by hand, and we'll do the other three quarters over the next weeks and months.

  2. Artificial herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers are made from oil, and the oil is running out. We need to learn how to live without them. Organic gardening isn't a middle-class fad, it's the future.

  3. We eat the produce from our allotment. I don't want to put poisons anywhere near our food. Just seems like common sense to me.

  4. The ground needed digging anyway (in response to Hedgie's astute observation that digging makes couch grass worse - in fact we forked it, then removed all the roots, then forked again and removed more roots until either there were no more roots or we were fed up). So using weedkiller wouldn't have saved us a job, it would just have saved us the "removing roots" stage of the job.

  5. We could have used weedkiller and then hired a rotavator to clear and cultivate the soil. That would have been pretty easy and quick. But then again we could have bought all our veggies from Tesco in the first place, even easier and quicker. But it's not about what's easiest, it's about what's best, in our opinion.

  6. It's good exercise. Some people join gyms at great expense and spend an hour a day on treadmills and rowing machines to keep fit, and then they hire someone at great expense to mow their lawn and trim their hedge for them. Seems to me you could save some money on that arrangement and still keep fit. This isn't really a "reason" why I chose to dig, but it is one of several nice benefits.

  7. There's a promising new blog called Allotment Junkies which is about allotment gardening and depression recovery. Being out in the daylight, taking vigorous exercise, having short-term achievable goals and seeing the tangible results of your labours (not to mention eating a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables) are all proven to be more effective treatment and prevention for depression than anti-depressant drugs. I have experienced depression in the past and have no intention of going there again if I can help it. Digging the garden or allotment helps keep me happy and healthy. This is also a pleasant bonus rather than a reason for my choice.

  8. But the main reason why I choose not to use Roundup is that soil is alive. Or rather it is an ecosystem of lots of interdependent organisms - plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, both microscopic and macroscopic. Using herbicides and pesticides damages that ecosystem and in extreme cases can result in sterile i.e. dead soil. As a gardener, I am in the business firstly of creating healthy soil. Healthy plants follow on from that. I won't do anything that damages the health of my soil if I can possibly avoid it, which is the same thing as saying I garden organically.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Let it Snow, Let it Snow

It snowed last night, so plans to plant the soft fruit bushes are on hold. The ground isn't frozen, but I just want to see how long this "cold snap" lasts. It could be a flash in the pan, or we could be in for a long hard winter starting three months late.

Still, the children will be glad if they get to use their sledges this winter after all.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Couch Grass

We got down to the allotment for a few hours yesterday and dug up plenty of couch grass. Couch grass looks pretty much like normal grass above ground but below ground the roots are like spaghetti - thick and invasive. The easiest way of getting rid of it organically is to cover it all with a thick light-proof layer like old carpet, but that takes months. We did it the hard way - fork it all up and remove as many roots as possible by hand. It's back-breaking, and I feel stiff and achey this morning.

The area which we have designated for soft fruit now looks like a pretty respectable tilth. But we know that if you dig down, there are still plenty of buried bits of couch grass root. Each tiny fragment of root is capable of growing into more horrible couch grass as soon as the weather warms up, and ideally we'd like to eradicate it entirely but that's probably not possible in the short term without using a chemical herbicide.

We'll go back tomorrow and dig it all over again and remove as much as possible. But at some point we'll call it a day and plant the fruit bushes Ed gave me for Christmas. I need to look up how much space they need, but I hope there will be room left over for some strawberry plants. Then each time we go to the allotment we'll spend a bit of time pulling up any couch grass that dares to show its face, and in time we'll kill it all I hope.

I hate couch grass. The only kind of couch grass I like is the kind in the picture, which comes from ReadyMade Mag.

(If you haven't signed the petition to save Manor Gardens Allotments, here's the link again: )

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Please Sign This Petition

Back in August I wrote about an allotment site in London which is due to be demolished in a few weeks' time to make way for a footpath serving the London Olympics site. The footpath will exist for only 4 weeks. The allotments have been there for 100 years.

I'm proud that Britain will be hosting the Olympics in 2012. I'm looking forward to it and I hope it will be a great success. It's an opportunity to show the world what is great about Britain. Not an excuse to demolish some of the great things about it. I'd like to see the footpath go around the allotments, with big banners put up saying:


Please, take a few seconds and sign this petition:

Friday, January 19, 2007

Beekeeping Course

I've signed up for a beekeeping course in Keele University in May. I'm so excited! Unfortunately the timing is poor - the course finishes on 27th May and as I understand it the best time to get started with bees is early in the spring. Do I wait until after the course and then try to get a hive and some bees even though it's not the ideal time? Or do I jump in the deep end and get bees and hive before the course, and learn what I'm doing as I go along?

I've ordered the recommended pre-course reading books from Amazon, so I'll be able to make a more informed decision after I've read those. If any Bean Sprouts readers are better informed than me (Stoney, didn't you have bees a while back?) I'd appreciate your expertise.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pepsi Challenge

I read that you can clean toilets without bleach by pouring in a can of cola, leave it overnight, then flush it away. So I tried it. It doesn't work, even if you scrub vigorously with a toilet brush as well.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ethical Mall

Under my web browser's "favourites" I have collected a lot of online ethical shops - organic, fair trade, recycled, earth-friendly etc. The list is starting to get quite unwieldy as more and more ethical shops seem to start up each week. I was idly thinking that it would be very convenient if they were all gathered together in one place. A sort of ethical mall.

So I did just that. Find it at It's not really a blog, as it won't be updated frequently. But when I buy things from any of the featured shops I will write about it, commenting on the usability of the online store, the speed of delivery, quality of the goods and packaging and customer service. I have also invited a few of my friends to submit reviews, otherwise there only would be one update every three months or so when I buy something (I'm no shopaholic). Blogs are easier to set up than websites, though, so that's the way I have created it.

I hope other people will find it useful, but even if it remains nothing more than a glorified version of my "favourites" folder it will still be worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Pocketful of Rhyme

My 8-year-old son, Tom, is a published poet. His poem "Wings" was a winner of a national children's poetry competition and was published in the anthology
"Pocketful of Rhyme". I'm so proud of him. I have written my share of poetry, but I have never had any published. So here it is (with permission from the author).


If I had wings
I would touch stampeding winds in a tornado.

If I had wings
I would taste water from the very crust of the world.

If I had wings
I would listen to a meteor crash to Earth penetratingly.

If I had wings
I would gaze at the burning American forest fire.

If I had wings
I would dream of flying with geese in the shape of a V.

If I had wings
I would join the American army and explore the Pentagon.

If I had wings
I would touch clouds and see the wind giants, who argue a lot.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Spring Is Getting Nearer

It's only January but it feels like spring is aproaching. Yesterday the sun was shining and I could feel it warming my back when I was outdoors. And the broom is blooming in next door's garden. It looks very jolly and yellow through the bare hedge.

On Saturday my sisters, Lindsey and Stephanie, joined me to sing Carmina Burana in a day with my choir, St. George's Singers. Part of the text is:
Rerum tanta novitas
In solemni veri
et veris auctoritas
iubet nos gaudere.

Glorious spring renews
all nature’s might
and spring our heart imbues
with joyous light.

It would have been a great weekend to spend some time on the allotment, but Saturday was out because of the singing day. Sunday was also impossible because it was my daughter Eleanor's 7th birthday party. Her friends arrived dressed in pyjamas and dressing gowns and slippers. They baked cakes, told spooky stories, played party games and ate pizza and ice-cream whilst watching a Disney movie.

I had a lovely time both days, doing fun things with people I love. But it doesn't get the couch grass out of the allotment. I'm going to have to step up a gear this week.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Braun Blender

I have a very old Braun food processor which used to belong to my parents and my grandmother before them. It's practically indestructible, although as you can see it has needed a few repairs. I was making scones in it once when it vibrated itself clear off the worktop and the Bakelite cover of the mixing attachment shattered. Steph and I glued and gaffer-taped it back together. Also the rubber gasket on the liquidiser perished, but we replaced it with a plastic O-ring from some sort of toy which fits perfectly. And just recently the flex was worn through, so Ed just took it off, trimmed away the worn part, and re-attached it slightly shorter.

I remember dad making lemonade in it when I was in primary school, and mum making cheese scones and grinding granulated sugar into icing sugar when she ran out during the Pope's visit and was making hundreds of yellow-and-white Pope-themed fairy cakes for some church event.

I love using it. It's no heirloom, too precious to use and consequently useless. I make bread, scones, pastry and cakes in the big bowl, I grind cooked chickpeas down to hummus using the mincer, and I blend soups and smoothies in the liquidiser. Because of its history it's much more satisfying to use than the cheap mixer I bought in Curry's. It's a pity there aren't more things like that in our lives - objects we inherit and use every day which carry a wealth of meaning and emotion.

I wrote to dad and asked him if he had any more information about it, and this is his reply:

Hi Mel,

Yes, I well remember buying the Braun. I was a young Boy Telegraphist on board HMS Birmingham and we were visiting Aden, late 1956. The food processor, liquidiser, mincing attachment and coffee grinder cost me the princely sum of £30. My Mum used it for mixing dough to make stotty cakes (twice, thrice, weekly), she made cakes with it, and scones (plain, fruit and cheese) she mixed pastry for pies, both sweet and savoury. She, like your Mum, made mincemeat with cheap offcuts of mutton and lamb. God, she used it for all sorts until, in 1970 when your Mum and I married, she gave it to us. I well remember spending hours paring meat off skirt of lamb to mince to make curries, lamb burgers, spicy lamb pies, etc. It was invaluable on a student's grant as we were then.

Some twelve to fifteen years ago, I remember writing to Braun in Germany, telling them the story of our family food processor and asking if they could help with the replacement of the bowls. They were so impressed with the longevity of the machine, and our fond feelings for it that they sent us the replacements free of charge and wished us many more useful years out of it. It does me old heart good to know that a new generation on it is still going strong and still loved.

Surely it is a good example of well made products give good service over a long life, not the light-weight, throw-away technology of today. Just because it is electronic, it doesn't have to be cheap and nasty, does it?

I really liked dad's point about electronic goods not needing to be cheap and nasty. So many electronic goods we buy are flimsy and short-lived that it is easy to imagine they are somehow inherently fragile. The 50-year-old Braun workhorse in my kitchen proves that isn't true, they're deliberately made that way now so we have to replace them more often.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Pumpkin Cake

Do you remember the monster pumpkin we were so kindly given at the beginning of November? I'm sure it was left on our plot for Hallowe'en, but we didn't pick it up until a few days later, so it was too late to carve into a lantern. Did you ever wonder what happened to it?

We kept it - pumpkins store very well as long as they are not damaged and are kept cool and safe from rodents. Ours stored on top of the fridge for over 2 months, and then one day last week I cut it up and made it into lots of pumpkin puree and froze it in batches.

What will the puree be used for? Well pumpkin soup is an obvious possibility. There are lots of good recipes here - my favourite is the coconut chili and pumpkin soup. I also make a cracking pumpkin pie. But recently I've found some more surprising uses for pumpkin. For one thing, I found a recipe for a delicious moist cake made with pumpkin (pictured) which all the children will eat! It has vegetables in it, but they eat it anyway. God bless Harry Potter, that's what I say. And I've invented pumpkin griddle cakes. They're scrummy. So scrummy in fact that I'm quite relieved the kids won't countenance them - that leaves more for Ed and me.

Pumpkin Griddle Cakes
Simmer 1lb pumpkin pieces in a little water, strain and lightly mash with a fork. Make sure you strain them well, squeezing a bit if need be to remove excess water. Melt 2oz butter into the mashed pumpkin and mix well. Mix salt, pepper and grated nutmeg into the buttery pumpkin mash, then stir in 4oz wholemeal plain flour. This makes a sort of sticky dough. Heat a frying pan and grease it with a little butter. Using your fingers make a few walnut-sized pieces of pumpkin dough and drop them onto the frying pan. Fry until golden on one side (only about a minute if the pan is hot enough) then turn over, and squash them down a bit with the back of a spatula to make flattened cakes about 1/4" or so thick. Fry until golden on that side, then remove from the pan and keep them warm whilst you cook the remaining batches of pumpkin griddle cakes. Serve hot.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

10 Species of Birds...

... visible from my kitchen window during a short period yesterday:

  1. Crows
  2. Blue tits
  3. Great spotted woodpecker
  4. Lots of gulls (dunno which kind, I don't do gulls)
  5. Woodpigeons
  6. Six magpies (six for gold - yay!)
  7. Great Tit
  8. Starlings
  9. A heron
  10. A robin
You can tell it was only a short period as sparrows aren't on the list, and you can't look out of any window in our house for long without seeing a sparrow.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Model Farm

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite toys was a Britains farm set. I had a little farmyard with a cowshed, pigsty, duck pond and Dutch barn, complete with tractor tyre marks in the mud and everything. I also had a Land Rover, a tractor, and lots of cows, pigs, horses, sheep, ducks and hens and lots of people. Who knows, maybe that's how my dream of having a smallholding and living off the land was started.

I was reminiscing about this to my dad on the phone the other day. Then yesterday the postman rang with a couple of parcels addressed to Sam. Inside was a Land Rover with a livestock trailer, three cows, a bull, two pigs and four piglets.

Sam loves them. Eleanor got a look in too. And I must admit I loaded some animals into the trailer and drove the Land Rover around the living room floor for a while, just as my mum did the Christmas I got my own Land Rover, several decades ago.

Thanks, dad! One of these days I'll have these things for real (although I probably won't be going for Herefords or large whites, more likely a Jersey cow and a couple of Gloucester old spots) but until then the kids and I can play with the beautifully detailed Britains 1/32 models and dream.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Load Of Old (Laundry) Balls

Elfie suggested that my beloved laundry balls might be a rip-off, no better than washing clothes in plain water. I couldn't let that pass by, so I did a little googling. Straightdope tested a different type of laundry ball than mine, and decided it was a scam. In their tests, the ball performed a little better than just plain water (which they put down to chance). But surprisingly the ball also performed about the same as using branded laundry detergent. Straightdope concluded that the balls are a scam, but so is laundry powder.

I decided to put it to the test. I had two loads of laundry yesterday so I washed one with the laundry ball as usual and one with just plain water. Both loads had the same programme and were washed at 40degrees.

I found that the wash with the laundry balls came out nice and clean as usual. I examined it closely and it looked and smelled clean, just as I expect. However a yellow pair of shorts which Sam had been wearing whilst digging the allotment were pretty muddy. After washing with the laundry ball they were still dingy-looking around the hems. This matches my usual exerience of washing with the balls (and also of washing with detergent) - some really grubby things need a second pass.

To my surprise, the wash with just plain water also came out nice and clean. It looked and smelled just as clean as the laundry ball load. Believe me I examined it carefully, but it seemed absolutely fine. Without having a more accurate way of measuring cleanliness, the best I can say is that I would be happy if every wash came out like that.

It looks like the balls are a waste of money (and perhaps so is laundry powder, as StarightDope suggested). But a friend on the newsgroup uk.rec.sheds suggested that for a true test you'd need to do many washes, as a small amount of left-behind grime could accumlate and the difference might only show up several washes later.

I carried out one last test, the toughest yet. Eleanor fell into a muddy puddle at school and her red tights and cardigan and her white polo shirt all had a thick caking of mud. Based on the experience with the yellow shorts, I knew the washing balls wouldn't get this out first go, and I thought plain water probably wouldn't either. I washed the uniform at 60degrees with a tablespoon of Ecover bleach and half a cup of washing soda. To my delight they came out good as new first time, even the white shirt.

I will continue washing our clothes with just plain water for the next few weeks to see if the grime builds up. I will also be investigating this whole issue further. What is the best way to wash clothes for maximum economy, effectiveness and impact on the environment?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Washing balls

This month Bean-sprouts is challenging you to be green and clean by using an environmentally friendly cleaning product, or making your own. One green cleaning product I've been using for over a year now is Wash-It Balls, which I bought from Lakeland. Here's a bit of the blurb from the Lakeland site:

Scientifically formulated pellets inside the Wash-It Ball 'activate' water molecules producing electrolytic oxygen and hydrogen ions, which unleash their natural power to lift dirt from clothing fibres.

My mum first put me on to them. She used them in my parents' holiday home in Ireland because it has a soakaway, so she couldn't use her usual detergent. In my experience they do a good job of cleaning most clothes at 40degrees or less. They don't quite stand up to tough dirt (such as baby clothes with lots of food stains, or children's clothes with mud and grass stains) as well as the super-dooper powders with enzymes and what have you. So I tend to keep some stain zapping products around for those cases.

I like the fact that they leave your clothes smelling just clean, rather than full of perfume. But the best thing about them is that they're good for about 100 washes so at £7.99 each they work out very much cheaper than Persil, as well as being better for the environment (well, I'm not so sure about the plastic ball). And that leaves us with more money to pay off our mortgage and one day buy some land.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I've Been Tagged

Wild Burro tagged me with the Five Things Meme, so now I have to tell you five things about myself you didn't already know. You didn't log on today to find the name of my first crush at school or what bizarre part-time jobs I had when I was a student, so I'll try to keep it self-sufficiency related.
  1. Just over 9 years ago I tried to grow vegetables in containers in the horrible paved yard in our old house in Liverpool. Things started off really well and I had strawberries, rubber beans, tomatoes and I can't remember what else beginning to grow. But then I got pregnant with my eldest and was prostrated with sickness and exhaustion for 3 months. When I felt well enough to go back out there, the slugs had eaten everything. I never tried to grow stuff at that house again.

  2. I'm worried this whole plan will never work because my kids (well mainly my eldest who has Asperger Syndrome and sensory issues) are very picky eaters and won't eat almost anything we can realistically grow. Worst of all my husband colludes with them. So unless we can become self sufficient in pizza and pasta we might be on a hiding to nothing.

  3. When we first got the allotment I asked the kids what they would like to plant. Tom (the eldest) said "Bananas". Sam (the youngest) said "Jelly beans!" Well, we've all learned a lot about fruit and vegetable growing since then.

  4. I was once bramble picking in a field near here, off the footpath, when the farmer let his cows into the field. The buggers all chased me and you may laugh but even just one cow is much bigger than me and a whole stampede of them is not funny. I scrambled through the thorny hedge, ripping my jacket, and continued picking berries on the other side. As I worked along the hedge the cows followed me. I could hear them snorting and stamping through the hedge. I've never picked berries in that field since.

  5. I was sorting out some packets of seeds the other day and making a month-by-month spreadsheet of what to sow and what to harvest, on Ed's new laptop. A packet of radish seeds emptied itself all over the keyboard. I managed to get most of them out by holding it upside down and shaking it. But every now and then I discover another one causing a key to stick. Sorry, Ed.

Well there are your five things. Now I have to tag five more people. I'm going to tag some of my favourite blogs which have been inactive for a while, in the hope it will encourage them to start posting again.


Today's picture is an aerial photo of our allotments, with our plot marked with a red "X".

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Uses For Compost

I've been taking a couple of trugs of compost down to the allotment every day from the garden compost heap. That's because the garden heaps are full whereas the allotment ones are almost empty. But it's the allotment that needs the nutrients right now.

For example, I've put a generous mulch of compost over two of my rhubarb crowns, and I've put a bucket over another, covered with compost, to "force" the rhubarb (i.e. encourage it to grow early, long, tender shoots which I'm really looking forward to eating as soon as possible). That one will need a bit more compost tomorrow, because the point is to exclude light, something almost none of the gardening books tell you. Upending a cheap orange bucket from B&Q over your rhubarb crowns will do no good whatever, as glowy orange light will filter through quite strongly.

Compost is absolutely magic. It's something non-gardeners (or at least non-composters) just can't understand, why people get so excited about compost. You throw smelly rubbish like tea bags and banana peels in a big pile, with some grass clippings, shredded paper, and even stinky chicken poo. And a few months later you have beautiful brown crumbly compost that you can quite happily rub your fingers through without feeling that you are touching anything foul. And its transformative effect on your soil and garden produce is just as magical. It's the nearest we can get to alchemy - turning dross into gold.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Review: Food From Your Garden

At first glance the Readers Digest book Food From Your Garden contains the same information you can find in almost any book about fruit and vegetable gardening or allotment gardening. The main part of the book contains entries for lots of different crops, with information about how to prepare the ground, when to sow, how to cultivate and when to harvest each different type. It's out of print so the information is not even up-to-date; organic methods for example are not discussed and the authors are quick to advise readers to use a terrifying range of pesticides and herbicides, most of which are probably now banned anyway. So far, so run-of-the-mill.

But this would be the one gardening book I would save if my house was on fire, because it has several features which make it stand out from the crowd. The most obvious are the recipes. Lots of books will tell you how to grow cardoons, but how many tell you how to eat them? Each crop has four or five suggested recipes, and they're good recipes too. Sugar-browned kohl rabi anyone? How about mushrooms in sour cream, or loganberry ice cream?

There are also several pages devoted to seasonal cooking, with recipes organised by season, and the only photos in the book (which is otherwise illustrated with beautiful colour line drawings). The photos sadly are that curious kind of 1970s food photography which always makes me lose my appetite entirely, but we'll gloss over that.

Another excellent feature is the "how many to grow?" information for each crop. Vital information which is missing in most other books. e.g.

A 20 ft row should produce about 25lb of globe beetroot or 45lb or a long rooted variety for winter use.

Then there is the Home Preserving section with detailed instructions for freezing, making jams, jellies, and chutneys, such as you could find in lots of different books. But it also describes lesser-known preservation techniques, such as how to make fruit cheeses and butters, syrups and juices, pickling, sauces, bottling, drying and salting. Most of these techniques come with lots of recipes.

There are also sections on foraging, wine making (again, with lots of recipes) and even keeping bees and poultry.

I would not be without this book. For years it was my inspiration and although I only used it to make the recipes using shop-bought ingredients I dreamed of growing all these things myself. Now I have started doing just that, it has become a handbook and a practical resource.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Great Day

Yesterday was a great day. Lots of little but nice things happened. I found a stash of about 50 packets of seeds I had forgotten about, so that was exciting. Then a neighbour came round to ask for a favour, and she gave me some home-made cookies as a "thank you". I also spent over an hour at the allotment for the first time in months. I moved the compost heaps, which was a bigger job than it sounds. Whilst I was doing it I found one of my favourite gardening gloves which I lost back in May or something. It needs a good wash but then it will be as good as new.

Today's picture is of the sock monkeys my sister, Steph, made for the kids for Christmas.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Festive Challenge Poll Results

The results of the festive challenge poll were as follows:

Will you accept the challenge to find local ingredients for your Christmas dinner?

  • I've gone green! I am hunting for local ingredients 26.67%
  • I was already green! All my food is locally sourced 46.67%
  • I don't accept your argument! I will eat Australian asparagus and raspberries on Christmas day 6.67%
  • I'm greener than thou! I am fattening a goose on my smallholding 20%

    I hope you all enjoyed the hunting for local ingredients almost as much as you enjoyed the meal.

    January's challenge is to be green and clean. I am challenging readers (and myself) to try an Ecover or another green cleaning product, or make your own.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

First The Farmer Sows His Seeds

Sam helped me sow some vegetable seeds (and a few flowers). We'll grow these on indoors to the seedling stage, then harden them off and plant them in the allotment in spring. We sowed some tomatoes, cauliflowers, cabbages and sweet peas.

Sowing seeds is easy, child's play you might say. Most of what you need to know is printed on the back of the seed packet - what time of year to sow, whether indoors or out, what to do next and so on.

Apart from that the main things to remember are these:
  • Sow more seeds than you want plants. Some seeds will fail to germinate. Some will grow weak and spindly. We sowed three seeds in each station. When they've sprung up, we'll thin out all but the strongest.
  • Don't bury them too deeply. Generally speaking, they need to be buried under the same thickness of compost as their size. So big seeds like broad beans are about an inch long, and need to be buried under about an inch of compost. Small seeds like tomatoes are about 1/16" and need to be covered with a pinch of compost from your fingers. Tiny seeds like lettuce are barely specks, and can be sprinkled on the surface.
  • Keep the compost moist. Don't let it dry out but don't flood them either. A plant mister is just the job for seeds and seedlings, or let water soak into the pots from below.

Monday, January 01, 2007

World Exclusive Interview

Stonehead is a good friend of Bean-Sprouts, and a regular commenter. He has an active blog of his own where he talks about life on a croft in North-East Scotland, environmental and political issues. I'm fascinated because he has gone much further along the road we are travelling, buying a smallholding and living off the land. I interviewed him exclusively for Bean-Sprouts.

Bean-sprouts: Describe a typical day for you.
Stonehead: Hmm, no such thing as a typical day! I get up between 5.30 and 6am. I have a shower every second day to conserve water, then it's straight into getting all the breakfast things ready before making packed lunches. I then head out to do the morning chores, feeding and mucking out the chickens and pigs.

With the chores done, I head inside for breakfast with the rest of the family. The other half heads off for work, the Big Lad gets the school bus, and I take the Wee 'Un to playgroup. If it's playgroup duty day, then I'm out until noon or so helping keep an eye on the children with lots of making stuff and story telling. If it's not playgroup duty, then I have from 9.30 until 11.30 to get jobs done. This can be building chicken houses, working in the vegetable patch, working with the soft fruit and fruit trees, mowing grass, planting, topping, baking, cider making, brewing, preserving.

After collecting the Wee 'Un I either finish off the morning's work or play outside games with the Wee 'Un. If working, we turn it into a play session as well so he can help with parts of the job. The Wee 'Un helps me make lunch, we then do some quick baking before having a quiet play and do some reading while we wait for the Big Lad to get home and for the bakes to cook. With the Big Lad home, we feed the chickens then the boys play together outside while I do more jobs.

From around 4.30pm until 5.30/6pm it's a repeat of the morning chores, the other half usually gets home just as we finish. We eat between 7.15 and 8pm, so that the boys can chill out for a while, then off to bed. Then it's tidy up and relax time. I try to fit in a bit of blogging around then, but usually it's more like 10pm until 11pm as it's nice to spend a bit of time with the other half! Weekends are even busier.

Bean-sprouts: What made you decide to pursue this lifestyle?
Stonehead: We don't regard it as a lifestyle. It's our way of life. I've always wanted either a small farm of my own or a yacht. I like working with animals, I like working the land, I like tinkering, and I like working hard for myself and my family.

I'm a pragmatic green - I don't buy the spiritual, hippy, pagan thing at all. I think we have one world, we have to tread lightly, we have to use resources sparingly and we have to be responsible for our actions. I do get a lot out of being outside in all weathers and enjoy being part of the natural world, but I'm not the communing with nature sort.

One thing I definitely am is an anti-consumer. I have a pathological hatred of being sold stuff that I don't want or need. I accept that I and my family have certain needs that can only be met by shopping, but I try to do so as little as possible. I'm a huge fan of bartering, trading and giving, I love making things and I like being minimalist. This can cause friction with the other half and the boys, but as we're generally in accord most of the time I can fudge on certain things (like TV!).

While I was very good at my career, I was always conscious that I was mainly generating money for people for whom I had little time but I persisted until we had sufficient money to be able to just afford the croft. However, I regarded the whole wage-slave thing as total BS, so once we were in a position to escape to the hills, I grasped it with both hands and got out of there. So why do I pursue this life? Because it's "my" life, just as it's also the other half's. We both choose to share it with each other. (The poor lads haven't much choice at this point!)