Saturday, March 31, 2007

Allotment Plans 2007

Here is the plan for our allotment for this season. Don't worry if you can't read the little tiny words - heres the upshot:

Each of the little grid squares is (very) roughly one square yard. The area is divided into six beds, which will be separated by paths. The green squiggle along the top is the edible thorny hedge we planted to keep vandals out. The pink shaded area is what we cultivated last year, so you can see how much more space we have now.

Bed 1 - Root veg, turnips, beetroot, parsnips etc.
Bed 2 - Misc, sunflowers, tomatoes, courgettes etc.
Bed 3 - Legumes, beans, peas etc.
Bed 4 - Brassicas, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kohl rabi etc.
Bed 5 - Potatoes, onions, garlic
Bed 6 - Soft fruit, raspberries, blackcurrants, strawberries etc.

The compost heaps are in the middle, there is a straggly rose bush marked as a green circle in the bottom left corner and several rhubarb crowns indicated by circles up the left hand side.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Nettle Soup

Following the success of my dandelion salad, I thought I'd continue my "backyard forage" experiments with nettle soup.

I've made nettle soap before, and it was a great success. So I already knew that it only takes a little bit of heat to disarm the stings. There's no danger at all that your lunch will sting your mouth, as long as it is well-cooked. I collected a dish of nettles from my back garden, wearing rubber gloves, and added them to some potato soup. It tasted lovely - not strong, but just delicately "green". Perhaps a little bit like spinach.

I'll definitely make it again. It's delicious hot, but its delicate flavour also tastes good chilled and thinned out with a little cold milk, like Vichyssoise. If nothing else, it's a welcome change from sodding cabbage.

Nettle Soup
Peel a couple of floury potatoes, dice, and simmer in half a pint of duck stock (if you don't have duck stock you'll have to use a chicken or vegetarian stock cube) and half a pint of milk. Whilst it's boiling, go outside and collect a breakfast bowl full of nettle tops - the top 4-6 young leaves of each plant. Give them a rinse and pick out any "extras", then add them whole to the potatoes. When the potatoes are tender, whizz it all up with a stick blender. Stir in plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and serve with a swirl of home-made yogurt (or cream, or creme fraiche, or whatever you've got).

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Top Ten Movies About Self-Sufficient Living

    1. Out of Africa - how could you not love a movie that opens with the line "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills"?
    2. The Land Girls - tractors, sex, and feminine bonding
    3. Witness - I love the Amish barn-raising scene in particular
    4. Cold Mountain - fabulous performance from Renee Zellweger getting stuck into vegetable-growing
    5. The Outlaw Josey Wales - one of my very favourite movies ever, and they all settle down on their homestead in the end. Perfect
    6. Little Women (the one with Susan Sarandon) - a very creditable adaptation of a classic book
    7. Chicken Run - remake of "The Great Escape" with claymation chickens from the makers of Wallace and Gromit
    8. Signs - spooky crop circles
    9. Oklahoma! - a movie about farming with songs you can hum. They don't make 'em like this anymore
    10. How to Make an American Quilt - feel-good chick flick with a great stoner granny, but for God's sake girl, stop dragging the quilt in the mud at the end of the film!

    Wednesday, March 28, 2007


    As promised, here are some buttons you can use to link to Bean-Sprouts if you wish. Right-click a button and save it to your own hard-drive. Then insert it onto your own website.

    The exact details of how to do that vary from one web host to another, especially if you are using a blog host rather than tinkering with html yourself. I sometimes use this html chart when I can't remember a tag. In this case you want the < img > tag.

    Then make the image be a link to Again this varies from blog to blog, or you can do it in html. This tutorial page shows you how.

    Please, please, if you haven't done this before (or even if you have) make a backup of your html before you start editing it, by copying it into a document and saving it. That way, if it all goes wrong you can put it back exactly the way it was.

    A small button

    A larger button

    A banner, for the really keen bean-sprouts fan.

    Edited at 13:10BST: The RSS feed for this blog is now also available on LiveJournal. Just add MRimmerBlog to your friends list. Thanks very much, Gid.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    Dandelion Salad

    I read somewhere that this is a good time of year to pick young dandelion leaves. You can steam them and eat them like spinach, or eat them raw in a salad. They have a slightly bitter taste, rather like watercress or radicchio. You can also apparently eat primrose flowers (they don't seem to taste of anything much but they look pretty). So last night I combined them in a spring salad.

    Spring Salad
    Fill a pint jug with young dandelion leaves, from plants that have not yet flowered. Give them a good wash and remove any leaves that are brown or spotted, and any bits of grass you may have gathered by accident. Add a couple of quartered hard-boiled eggs, and a few washed primrose flowers. Make a dressing by putting 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a jam jar with 1 teaspoon of cider vinegar, a crushed clove of garlic and plenty of ground sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tightly seal the jam jar and shake vigorously, then toss the salad in the dressing.

    Monday, March 26, 2007

    Dry-Clean Only

    I don't normally "do" kits, but I'm currently embroidering a tablecloth and napkins from a kit I was kindly given. However, on reading the instructions I was amazed to find the direction "dry-clean only". It's a tablecloth! What the hell is the point of a dry-clean-only tablecloth?

    Sunday, March 25, 2007


    Last night my choir, St George's Singers, performed Haydn's Creation at the Royal Northern College of Music. It was a good concert - the orchestra (The Manchester Camerata) are one of the UK's most distinguished, the choir has been acclaimed as the best in the region, and the soloists were exquisite.

    I enjoyed singing the biblical story of the creation. After the creation of trees and plants, Gabriel (the soprano soloist) sings a beautiful description of the first spring:

    With verdure clad the fields appear
    Delightful to the ravished sense;
    By flowers sweet and gay
    Enhanced is the charming sight.
    Here vent their fumes the fragrant herbs;
    Here shoots the healing plant.
    By loads of fruits th'expanded boughs are pressed;
    To shady vaults are bent the tufty groves;
    The mountain's brow is crowned with closed wood.

    Saturday, March 24, 2007


    I've been getting stressed out by the slow progress on the allotment. I want to start planting stuff but it's less than half-dug. We were going to work last weekend but the weather was too bad. And this Saturday I have a concert in Manchester which will keep me busy for most of the day. So my beloved hubby, Ed, took a day of his precious annual leave yesterday just to get the job done.

    It was a joint effort. I got up at 6am and was digging on the allotment at 6:30. I got a solid couple of hours' work done as Ed got the kids up and ready for school. The Ed took over the digging whilst I took the kids to school.

    For 10 hours, one or the other of us (often both) were hard at work on the allotment. I now ache in places I didn't know I had places. I have hands like a navvy and blisters on my insteps. And we still only got about half as much dug as we hoped. It was fun, though. I really enjoyed it and the time seemed to pass very quickly. I also picked the first stalks of rhubarb which I stewed and ate with custard.

    We'll do more on Sunday, after tomorrow's concert, but for now we'll rest and heal our aching muscles.

    Friday, March 23, 2007

    Review: Living The Good Life

    I really enjoyed "Living the Good Life" by Linda Cockburn. It's the story of an Australian family who spend six months without spending any money, but still living a fairly normal life. They had already converted their half-acre garden to a fruit and vegetable plot (with chickens and a goat called "Possum") to provide all their food, and installed solar hot water, photovoltaics and water catchment to provide electricity and water.

    It's also peppered with facts and figures about the harm our modern lifestyles are doing to the planet and to ourselves, including the table I reproduced a couple of weeks ago in "Consumerism v Humanitarianism". These help explain why the family felt motivated to do such a thing, and perhaps should motivate readers to make some changes in their own lifestyles. But if you really don't like that sort of thing you can easily skip those parts because they appear in coloured boxes, so you can just go to the next bit of narrative about the family.

    One factor that made it an easy read was that I really liked her. I'd like to meet her and just hang out, because she seemed funny and relaxed, whilst also passionate and serious about things that I agree are important. She kept that balance which (dare I say it) some eco-warriors tend to lose. So there is plenty of humour in the book. For example when their six-year-old son loses patience with the project and declares:

    I don't care what's for dinner as long as it comes with a free toy!

    Maybe I'm weird (well I know I'm weird) but when I read about how they went six months without buying new clothes (even though they all lost weight and their clothes were dropping off them), or new shoes (and had to mend their own flip-flops), or books (gasp!) or anything else, I really envied them and wished I could do it myself. So many aspects of their lifestyle seemed idyllic, that even their hardships didn't seem as bad as struggling to do the weekly shop in the rain, queueing up for hours at the checkout and then sitting stuck in the traffic on the way home, or the other "hardships" of normal modern life.

    The end of the book describes their first couple of weeks "post-project". They had looked forward to having a huge blow-out, eating all the fast food they could get, and buying all the posessions money can provide. But they quickly found it wasn't nearly as enjoyable as they had anticipated. The dad had spent the whole six months cycling home from work past a KFC and trying to resist the alluring smell of hot chips. but when the project was over and he could have gone in and bought them if he wanted, he found he didn't really want to any more.

    I recommend you read this book. For one reason, it might open your eyes and motivate you to make some changes in your lifestyle that would benefit you and the whole planet. It certianly did that for me. But that's not the main reason you should read it. The main reason is that it's a good read. I think you'll enjoy it.

    Thursday, March 22, 2007

    Spring Equinox

    Yesterday was the spring equinox (in the northern hemisphere anyway, in the southern hemisphere it's autumn). That means that the sun was directly above the earth's equator so the day and night were of equal length (although because the sun is quite a big disc rather than a mathematical point, in fact the day was about 14 minutes longer).

    But you don't visit Bean-Sprouts for an astrophysics lecture. The important point is that from now on, we get more light than darkness, the ground should start warming up and the plants should start growing. Winter is past and the growing season is here.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2007

    One Advantage of Disposable Hankies

    It has been almost 2 months now since I stopped using disposable hankies and started using washable ones instead. Overall the change has been a good one. In fact I've only noticed one situation in which it would have been better to have a pack of Handy Andies in my handbag rather than a nice washable cotton hankie - in a public toilet, when I belatedly realised there was no toilet paper.

    Tuesday, March 20, 2007


    I love sprouting beans and seeds, hence the name of this blog. Whenever I visit the health-food shop or ethnic grocer I look out for new types of seeds and beans to try sprouting them.

    Recently at The Unicorn (a fantastic wholefood co-operative in South Manchester) I bought a bag of "sprouting mix" which contained sunflower seeds. I hadn't considered sprouting sunflower seeds before, but they sprout very well. This discovery led me to experiment with pumpkin seeds which also sprout well. And at Matta's (an international food shop in Liverpool) I got some raw buckwheat. That also sprouts well and very quickly, and you don't need to soak it overnight - an hour is plenty.

    Through the winter, lettuce has not been available in my organic veg box, so fresh bean-sprouts have been the main ingredient in our salads.

    Winter Bean Sprout Salad
    Use your own sprouted beans or shop-bought ones. The familiar Chinese mung-bean sprouts will work fine, but if you have more interesting sprouts such as alfalfa, broccoli, chick-pea etc. that's even better. Now add whatever salad ingredients are in season. I've been adding grated carrot, chopped hothouse tomatoes (remove the seeds) and cucumber and finely chopped onion. The general rule I follow in making salads is to aim for a constant "particle size" - that is, try to chop everything about the same size as the main ingredient. So when I'm making rice salad everything gets chopped as small as I can and when I make sprout salad they can be a little bit bigger, but still fairly small (there are exceptions of course, I don't make potato salad with lumps of onion an inch across, it's just a rule of thumb). Now add a dressing. I have lots of dressing recipes. The simplest would be lots of ground black pepper, some sea salt and some freshly squeezed lemon juice. But feel free to use your own favourite salad dressing recipe (mayonnaise, especially home-made, adds a touch of luxury).

    Monday, March 19, 2007

    Interview with Friends of the Earth

    I am a big supporter of Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaigning organisation. In particular their campaigns on food and farming are close to my heart. Richard Hines from the Friends of the Earth Real Food & Farming Team agreed to answer some of my questions.

    Bean-sprouts: A lot of families are on a very tight budget and find it hard to afford fresh fruit and veg, never mind buying organic. What would you suggest?

    Richard: Get down to your local market or greengrocer and you might be surprised how reasonable their prices are. Studies have shown that they're cheaper than the supermarkets for fruit & veg which means you can eat tasty fresh produce on a tight budget. And if you spend an extra few minutes cooking from fresh instead of buying ready-made meals you'll save loads of money too, and have a much healthier diet.

    Bean-sprouts: I know all the reasons to buy organic, and Fair Trade, and local. But it's rare to be able to get all three in one product. When I have to choose between them, which should I go for and why?

    Richard: Each product is different so there isn't a golden rule for choosing what to buy. But you can go a long way to reducing your environmental impact by buying seasonal, local produce from local shops wherever possible. That way you'll be benefiting the environment by cutting down on food miles whilst supporting local farmers and shops. But if you simply must have those bananas and chocolate then look for the Fair Trade version. And if pesticides are your main concern then organic produce will be your best bet.

    Bean-sprouts: Another ethical dilemma is when big companies with poor ethical or environmental records produce certified organic or Fair Trade products alongside the rest of their range. Should conscientious buyers choose these products or continue avoiding the company?

    Richard: When choosing what to buy, shoppers should certainly bear in mind who they're buying from as well as what they're buying. Simply having a few green or ethical products doesn't hide the fact that big companies damage the environment and often treat suppliers unfairly. If a company has a poor record, seek out alternatives. And if your local shops don't have the products you want, ask for them!

    Bean-sprouts: How can I be sure that food I buy does not contain genetically modified ingredients?

    Richard: GM products have to be labelled so they should be easy to spot, and thanks to opposition from shoppers there still aren't many out there. Unfortunately there is a loophole when it comes to meat and dairy. Although they need to be labelled if they contain GM ingredients themselves, products from animals fed GM (such as GM soya) do not have to be labelled as such. The only way to guarantee that the food you're eating doesn't come from animals fed GM is to buy organic.

    Thank you, Richard. That was very interesting and helpful. I must admit I sometimes buy non-organic meat, but now I know it may come from animals fed on GM ingredients I will avoid it religiously in future.

    Sunday, March 18, 2007

    Mother's Day

    Today is Mother's Day in the UK, and I got a lie-in followed by breakfast in bread. Breakfast was coffee, home-squeezed orange juice, croissants with butter and marmalade, and wedges of watermelon.

    It's over a year since I had watermelon. They just don't turn up in my weekly organic veg box. I can't honestly say I've thought about them or craved them or anything. But to suddenly be presented with a plate of beautiful watermelon wedges (does any other fruit have such an appetising colour scheme when cut?) seemed like a wonderful exotic treat.

    I remember when I was at primary school a teacher asked us what our favourite food was and tried to convince us we wouldn't like to have it every day. I didn't believe her then - I thought having sweeties every day sounded grand. But she was right. My Mother's Day breakfast in bed had covers a huge number of food miles, but because we eat like that so rarely, I thoroughly enjoyed every mouthful.

    Saturday, March 17, 2007

    Bird Feeder

    Happy St Patrick's Day! My dad sent me a little badge with a living piece of shamrock which I'll be wearing all day. Afterwards I'll pot it up and encourage it to grow in a pot on my kitchen windowsill. It'll make me think of my dad in Co. Limerick whenever I look at it.

    My sister, Steph, showed me how to make these bird feeders. You make holes in monkey nuts then thread string through. The blue tits in particular like to hang on them and peck holes in the shells to extract the nuts. I thought the grey squirrels would probably just steal the whole thing and run off with it, but oddly I haven't seen them bother with it at all. If you use natural string (rather than nylon or something) then when it is empty you can just fling the whole thing on the compost heap.

    Feeding birds encourages biodiversity in the garden. If you tempt them in for a lunch of peanuts, they might decide to finish off with a dessert of caterpillars and slugs. Site your birdfeeder carefully because bird droppings will accumulate underneath it. These add fertility over time but may be too strong for some plants (and are unwelcome on e.g. lettuce). It occurs to me that if you had a layer of some sort of mulch under the birdfeeder you could change it once in a while and put the mulch plus droppings on your compost heap. Or you could fix the feeder directly above the heap and collect the frtility directly. But to tell the truth I don't feed the birds because it's good permaculture practice. I just feed the birds because I love watching them.

    Friday, March 16, 2007

    Frugal Mindset

    One of the most difficult things about becoming more frugal is breaking out of the mindset that you must have the right product for every need. For example, it is possible to crush garlic without a garlic crusher, by using a knife. It is possible to liquidise soup without a liquidiser, by pushing it through a sieve, although it is laborious. It is possible to mash potatoes without a potato masher, by using the end of a rolling pin (in fact this is a better way of making e.g. swede mash which is tough to do with a potato masher). The kitchen seems to be a particular place where manufacturers like to sell us gadgets we don't really need.

    I remember years ago making a measuring jug out of a 1 pint milk bottle. I filled the milk bottle with water, then shared the water between two milk bottles until the levels were the same. Then I marked that as my "half pint" level. Repeat the process to get a "quarter pint" level. Add a quarter pint to a half pint to get the "three quarter pint level" and so on.

    I wrote this post because yesterday I tried out a method for making bread in the microwave. Of course I needed a microwavable loaf tin - or did I? I could have bought one from the Lakeland shop a short drive away. Or I could look in the cupboards and find a variety of rectangular plastic containers, including washed margarine and ice-cream tubs, which would do a good job. In the end I opted for yet another solution - I made a cottage loaf instead.

    It's rewarding being ingenious, and once you get in the habit it gets easier to think of creative frugal solutions to problems. I thought it would be fun to pick your collective brains and see what lateral solutions you can come up with to the following situations:
    • How can you make a recipe calling for 2oz butter, 4oz flour, 2oz sugar without weighing scales?
    • How can you make macaroni cheese without a cheese grater?
    • How can you dry clothes with a clothesline but no pegs?

    Thursday, March 15, 2007

    No Circulars Please!

    So far in the Reduce Junk Mail challenge I have shown you how to sign up to the Mail Preference Service and Unaddressed Mail Opt-Out to stop the postman from delivering junk mail. But you may still be getting unwanted leaflets and free newspapers delivered by individuals. To some extent these are inevitable. Short of keeping a vicious dog in your front garden you can't really stop people pushing stuff through your letter box if they are determined. But you may be able to reduce the amount by making it clear that you don't want them. "Another Mel" recommended putting a "No Junk Mail" sticker on your letter box. You could make one of these yourself, or download this poster, print it out and display it near your letter box.

    If you click on the picture it takes you to an 82Kb A4 size jpeg. It should download instantly across broadband but if you're on dial-up I'd set it running then go and make a cup of tea whilst it loads.

    If you do use the poster, I'd love to see a photo of it displayed by your door. Email me your photos, and let me know whether or not you're happy for them to be published on this blog.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2007

    Review: Liz Cook Charts

    I have a chart from Liz Cook in my kitchen which I find very useful. It's about different nutrients your body needs, and what foods contain them. I also have charts by her about natural cleaning products and natural first aid remedies. I refer to them often because they are constantly on display rather than in a book tucked away on a shelf somewhere.

    Although it only lists vegan foods, you don't have to be a vegan to find Liz's nutrition chart useful. I mainly use it as a reminder about what foods we're not eating. I'll look at the chart and think "We haven't had Brazil nuts for ages", then go and buy some. It helps us make sure there aren't any gaps in our diet. It is also a daily reminder that food isn't just about convenience, or simply a way to stop hunger pangs, but it is a central part of keeping healthy and avoiding illness.

    I also love the way they look. They look hand-made (which they are) with hand-drawn lettering and little drawings of fruits and vegetables. They make me smile when I see them stuck up in my kitchen, and whenever I see them elsewhere, I know there is someone around that I have something in common with.

    You may be wondering why this is written as a book review when it is about a series of wallcharts. Well, each chart has an ISBN number and you can buy them from Amazon, or directly from Liz's website.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    First Harvest of 2007

    The first harvest of 2007 from our allotment.

    EDITED AT 6:59pm
    Sorry. For those who can't see the picture - it's a vase of daffodils, cut from our allotment on Sunday.

    Monday, March 12, 2007

    Consumerism v Humanitarianism

    I am reading "Living the Good Life" by Linda Cockburn. It is about an Australian family who spent 6 months without spending any money. They planned it for years in advance, building up a vegetable garden and keeping chickens and a goat to provide all their food, installing solar panels on their roof and rainwater catchment tanks etc.

    Iam enjoying it so far, it is a good read. I'll probably write a proper review when I've finished it. But for now I wanted to share with you the following table from the book. When I read it, I wanted to cry.

    Consider the priorities in global spending in 1998
    Global Priority......................................................$US Billions
    Basic education for everybody in the world.......................6
    Cosmetics in the United States.......................................8
    Water and sanitation for everyone in the world..................9
    Ice cream in Europe.....................................................11
    Reproductive health for all women in the world..................12
    Perfumes in Europe and the United States........................12
    Basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world............13
    Pet foods in Europe and the United States........................17
    Business entertainment in Japan.....................................35
    Cigarettes in Europe.....................................................50
    Alcoholic drink in Europe................................................105
    Narcotic drugs in the world............................................500
    Military spending in the world.........................................780

    Sunday, March 11, 2007

    Oh S**t!

    When we went to the allotment yesterday, there was an ENORMOUS pile of horse manure at the gate. The vegetable gardeners amongst you will understand my excitement. Everyone else will just think I'm bonkers.

    My husband Ed and I spent a happy afternoon going back and forth with barrows full of manure and depositing it on our plot. The curious thing is that the kids spent a happy afternoon playing on a huge pile of shit. Normally they start whining after about half an hour, but they didn't do that this time so Ed and I kept working for about 4 hours. The kids got pretty mucky of course but at least they were warm.

    I also planted some onion sets, some garlic, two rose bushes, a holly bush and a berberis (spiky shrub).

    Saturday, March 10, 2007

    Chinese Egg Soup

    There are so many different recipe books available in lots of different niches. Vegetarian recipe books. Healthy recipe books. Quick and easy recipe books. Wholefood recipe books. But I can't find a healthy vegetarian quick and easy wholefood family recipe book. When I get round to writing it, here's one of the recipes I'll include.

    Chinese Egg Soup
    Serves 1

    Make half a pint of vegetarian stock - I use Marigold powdered bouillon, or Kallo stock cubes, or yesterday's vegetable cooking water, or sometimes I just use plain water. If you're not vegetarian use an Oxo cube or chicken Bovril. Add a slug of soy sauce and bring to the boil. Stir your boiling stock vigorously and slowly pour a beaten egg into it, stirring all the while. It will set into long fine strands when it hits the water. Add some bean sprouts (or sweetcorn, finely chopped spring onion, chives, parsley, whatever you've got) and serve.

    It takes the same amount time as making a cup-a-soup, but it's a lot nicer and better for you.

    Friday, March 09, 2007

    You Should Make Those to Sell!

    When you make crafts, people are always saying to you "Oh you should sell those!" but when you ask them how much they'd pay, their offers are usually less than the cost of materials.

    Case in point - I made a shopping bag out of old carrier bags cut into strips and knitted together. And as usual people said "You should sell those. I'd buy one". It's true the materials cost me nothing, but it took me about ten hours to cut the strips and knit it together. At minimum wage, that's £53.50 just for the labour. So I offered to sell them the bag for that price. They all declined.

    I think a skilled craftsperson is worth a lot more than minimum wage. And if I was making crafts as a business I'd also have to pay tax, bank fees, public liability insurance and all kinds of other expenses. If I seriously wanted to make hand-made recycled shopping bags as a profitable business I probably couldn't afford do it for less than about £100 per bag. But people only pay that much for fashionable designer items, not recycled home-made chic.

    When you buy the materials it comes to even more. The yarn for a hand-made woollen sweater costs in the region of £50, and they take more than ten hours to knit so the labour costs are astronomical. The materials for a hand-made quilt are many times more than that but shhh, don't tell Ed, my husband. The labour for a quilt is also measured in many tens of hours.

    That's why I don't make crafts to sell. I don't even make them as gifts because I know people often think "Hand made gift. Cheapskate. Second-rate". I only make gifts for people who appreciate what they're worth, usually other craftspeople.

    Thursday, March 08, 2007

    Hero Milkman

    Following up on my recent post about how great milkmen are, I saw this news story about a milkman who saved a disabled pensioner from a house fire, then after leaving him safely with a neighbour went back to doing his milk round. The milkman, whose name is Gary Cant (is it just me who keeps mis-reading that?), said:

    I didn't really think about it at the time. I just did what I suppose most milkmen would do.

    He's being given an award today by the Dairy Farmers of Britain. So I've decided to award him the Bean-Sprouts Medal of Honour as well.

    Wednesday, March 07, 2007

    Wait A Minute Mister Postman

    Does cancelling junk mail endanger your postman's job? I've heard it claimed that revenue from direct marketing pays the postman's wages, so we should all put up with a few items of junk mail or risk losing the postal service.

    I don't agree. The marketers don't pay the postal service because they want everyone in the country to see their ads. They pay because they know that a few people will buy their products after seeing the ads. It's worth the money because of the increased sales. But most people don't buy the products, they just put the leaflets straight in the recycling. The marketers would love to know who are the people who will go on to buy the product and who just puts them in the recycling. They could save a fortune on printing the leaflets (and CD-ROMs, half-empty biros etc.) and still make just as many sales.

    If you never buy products or services from direct marketing, you are doing the marketers a favour by cancelling, because it saves them money on which they get no return. And you are doing your postie a favour, stopping him trudging up and down your path even when you have no real mail. And you're doing the planet a favour by saving the resources needed to make, print, and drive around the country all that weight of unwanted mail.

    Convinced? Read Reduce Junk Mail which has all the links to stop junk mail (and telesales calls) coming to your house. And don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar when you've done it.

    Tuesday, March 06, 2007

    Lotta Bottle

    We've recently started getting our milk delivered by the milkman again. Milk deliveries are an ethical choice because:

    • Dairies are cooperatives of dairy farmers so the farmers get a fair price. Many supermarkets pay dairy farmers less than the cost of production and one dairy farmer goes out of business every day because of it. That's why the milk from your milkman costs more than in the supermarket. The milk in the supermarket is unsustainably cheap
    • Milk comes in glass bottles which are collected and reused up to 20 times before being recycled. In the supermarket it comes in plastic bottles which will take 50-100 years to degrade
    • Milkmen were using quiet efficient electric milk floats decades before electric cars started becoming available to the eco-conscious public
    • Milkmen are a valuable part of the community. For example, they are usually the first people to notice when someone isn't taking in their milk, and may contact the police to investigate why. It might be that the customer went away on holiday and forgot to cancel. Or it might be that they collapsed and need medical attention. Either way it's good to know that someone would notice.

    Other benefits of getting milk delivered:

    • You don't have to make as many trips to the shops because you've run out of milk. When was the last time you did that and only bought a pint of milk? You always buy other stuff too, don't you? So getting milk delivered saves money
    • You can also get other things delivered as well as milk. My milkman will deliver bread, eggs, orange juice, flavoured milk, yogurt and all sorts of things
    • You don't have to ever run out of milk. Black tea - yeuch!
    • You get the cream on top of the full-fat milk to do with as you wish. I like it in my morning coffee, or mixed into my porridge, or even just in a big creamy dollop on my cornflakes. You don't get that with the homogenised stuff from the supermarket
    • At least, you get the cream if the blue tits don't get it first. Still, I like blue tits and I don't begrudge them a few beakfuls of cream

    If you'd like to try a milk delivery (you can always cancel it again if it doesn't suit you), you can find a milkman by typing your postcode into the website.

    Monday, March 05, 2007

    The Law of Return

    There's an important principle of organic gardening called the law of return. The idea is that you shouldn't take anything away from the land without putting something of equal value back. It sounds suspiciously like airy-fairy nonsense but it is actually quite sensible. If you keep growing crops on a patch of land and then taking them away, to sell them for example, eventually the land will become depleted of certain nutrients and will produce smaller and smaller harvests and ultimately be unable to grow that crop (or perhaps any other) at all.

    So-called "conventional" growing (in reality the system is less than 100 years old) solves this problem by adding fertilisers - doses of single nutrients such as phosphorous or nitrogen. This is rather like taking vitamin pills. You might see an improvement in the patient's condition but it's no substitute for having a healthy varied diet in the first place.

    With organic gardening you avoid the problem of depletion by the "law of return". So you compost the parts of garden plants you don't need, and the weeds. And the things you take away, the fruit and vegetables, are replaced by compost brought in from elsewhere, or well-rotted manure, or something else of equal value. If you can manage a closed system in which nothing leaves the site (which in practice means composting human and animal dung and burying animal carcasses on site etc.) then that is the ideal situation.

    Ed and I have been digging up couch grass roots from the allotment for, oh, feels like forever but in fact it's a few weeks. All the couch grass roots are now piled up on top of a sheet of horticultural plastic, with more plastic wrapped around it and over the top. It will take take at least a year, perhaps more, before they all rot down but when they do they will turn into beautiful compost, full of nutrients which we will return to the soil. The alternative was to take them to the landfill site, and lose all those nutrients forever.

    When you see the huge pile of roots, already starting to try to sprout up again for another year, you can really see the sense in the law of return. You can see the roots in the right of the picture, the heap is about 4 feet high. They are full of nutrients for the soil, trace minerals as well as carbon, nitrogen and all that good stuff. It would be a serious loss to dump them all off-site, but this way even weeds can be put to good use.

    Sunday, March 04, 2007

    Review: How To Grow More Vegetables

    I bought John Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables recently, hoping it would live up to its promise of showing me:
    "How to grow more vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine"

    I got pretty irritated wading through several chapters of irrelevant waffle that kept promising this amazing new technique would allow me to grow between twice as much and thirty-one times as much per unit area as "conventional" methods (which I assumed meant whatever method I am using now), but which never spelled out what this method was. When I finished chewing my way through the book I was disappointed. All this "new method" is, is just:

    • Grow organically
    • Use raised beds, not rows
    • Use loads of compost
    • Use intensive plant spacings
    • Companion planting

    Just about every gardening book I've got advises those exact same things.

    It also contains some advice I consider dubious:

    • Planting by phases of the moon
    • Planting shedloads of stuff (60% of your available area) purely so you can turn it into compost
    • The author isn't keen on animal manure or green manure

    In retrospect I'm glad I read it, but I wish I'd got it out of the library instead of spending money on it. For one thing, it does contain some helpful information, but buried under a lot of crud. For example, information about the depth of the root systems of various crops.

    It also makes very clear what a "raised bed" is. For a long time I thought it meant building retaining walls full of earth and planting stuff 2' in the air surrounded by brick walls. It doesn't mean that at all - it means having areas where you plant, with paths in between. You don't walk on your beds (you have to make them about 5' wide or less, so you can reach the middle for weeding and harvesting) so they don't get compacted and don't need digging every year. Within those beds you plant intensively, so leaf growth covers all the soil, stopping weeds growing and water evaporating. The book makes that much clearer and if I had read it sooner I could have saved a lot of confusion about raised beds.

    I also like its emphasis on the soil. It talks a lot more about soil than plants. For example the fact we are destroying soil far faster than soil is being replaced. This is going to be a very hot topic in the near future, although the public have heard very little about it so far. I'll write more in a future post but remember you heard it here first. The book describes all the different components of soil - organic and inorganic, living and dead. It talks about the ideal structure of soil as a "living sponge cake". In the section about watering it emphasises that you are watering the soil, not the plants because plants don't take in water through their leaves, only their roots. All these are things I have felt for a long time and it is nice to see them expressed so clearly.

    The thick cheap paper and goofy line drawings may put some people off but I love that sort of thing. My favourite illustration from the book is of a bearded hippy sitting cross-legged on the ground sowing seeds in a bed. I find that sort of thing charming, and it captures my imagination much better than the modern style of glossy photographs which manage to look less "real" than drawings do. In fact, I wish I had the 6th edition instead of the 7th, because it had a picture of a quilt on the front with appliqued fruits and vegetables.

    But it's not going to help me grow loads more crops than I have in the past with some radical new approach, because I was doing all those things anyway.

    If you want my advice, buy this book if you see it cheap in a charity shop, or ask your library to order it for you. It is interesting, and a useful part of building up your understanding of vegetable growing. But don't believe the hype - you're probably already using most of the methods it advocates so it won't tell you how to have vastly bigger yields.

    Saturday, March 03, 2007

    Bird Nesting Materials

    You can buy bird nesting material rings in garden centres. Wiggly Wigglers has got one for £18. I like Wiggly Wigglers but I'm sorry, that's just a rip-off, plain and simple. My sister Steph took one of those mesh bags you buy onions in and filled it with nesting materials - fluff out of the tumble dryer, bits of dried grass, teased lengths of sisal, feathers, ends of knitting yarn etc. then she hung it up in our garden.

    It cost nothing at all, and it recycled some materials that would otherwise have gone into the landfill bin. It also encourages biodiversity in the garden, helping the native birds which eat garden pests. But even if the birds didn't do these beneficial things, Steph and I just love looking at them. We counted over 20 different species last weekend. I'm happy to help them build somewhere to raise their eggs, but I wouldn't pay nearly twenty pounds for a bunch of fluff.

    Friday, March 02, 2007

    Reduce Junk Mail

    The Bean-Sprouts challenge for March is to reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. The average UK household receives around 200 items of junk mail each year. If you find these useful - if you read them and occasionally buy products and services from them - then that's fine. But if you're like me and just dump them straight in the paper recycling container (or heaven forbid the landfill bin!) would you like to know how to stop receiving them altogether? If you're a UK resident, you can do it in the next two minutes. Here's how:

    Follow the link to the Mail Preference Service website and fill in the online form. Within 28 days direct marketers must stop sending unsolicited mail addressed to you. Don't forget to include the names of everyone at your address, as this service works by name and address.

    To stop unaddressed junk mail (the ones marked "To the occupier") go to the Unaddressed Mail Opt-Out web page and request a form. You have fill in an actual form so you can't do this online, but if you request the form and send it off, you will stop receiving unaddressed junk mail.

    While you're at it why not go to the Telephone Preference Service website and in two minutes you can stop those annoying sales calls.

    All these are legally binding - if sales people ring you or mail you when you are signed up to the lists, they are breaking the law. I have been signed up for about a year and it really works. Don't forget to vote in the poll (in the right-hand sidebar) when you've done it.

    Thursday, March 01, 2007

    Ditch the Disposables Challenge Poll Results

    It's March! Hurrah! No more February for another 11 months. Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus to all my Welsh readers.

    The results of the Ditch the Disposables Challenge poll were:

    • I've gone green! I've ditched the disposables! 10 votes
    • I was already green! I don't use any disposables! 4 votes
    • I don't accept your argument! Disposables rock! 2 votes
    I enjoyed ditching my disposables. I made recycled pan scrubbers and cloth hankies, tried washable menstrual pads, and switched to flannels instead of sponges in the bathroom and cloths instead of sponge-pads in the kitchen. All these things are just as easy to use as their disposable alternative but save money and save Earth's resources.
    There's be a new challenge for March coming soon.