Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bee Jokes

Since we're posting bad bee jokes...

Knock knock
Who's there?
Abbey who?
A bee just stung me!

Knock knock
Who's there?
Anna who?
Another bee just stung me!

Knock knock Who's there?
Helen who?
Hell, another bee just stung me!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Eric and the Bee

I've been trying to post a YouTube clip of a classic Morecambe and Wise sketch, Eric and the Bee. But YouTube isn't playing ball, so here's the link:

Knowing my luck six blog posts will appear in two hours' time of the clip I was trying to post...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Review - Keep Chickens

Keep Chickens! by Barbara Kilarski was the book that got me started with chickens. It's by Storey Press, who publish books about gardening, soap-making, brewing, livestock etc. I've never had a bad book from them.

The book is specifically aimed at backyard chicken-keeping, not smallholding or farm scale poultry. It answered all my questions about keeping hens in a domestic garden - noise, smell, housing, hygiene etc. I've found the information in the book to be practically sound and based on experience and expertise, although it is an American book and so not all the advice was strictly relevant to a British reader. But even if American living habits sometimes differ from British (what is a condominium anyway?), American chickens seem to be identical to their Limey counterparts so the differences weren't very important.

As well as the factual information, I was charmed by the illustrations. There are several colour plates including images of different breeds of chicken and some quirky hen houses. The black-and-white pages of the book are also peppered with 1940's American ads for poultry feed, which give it a fun, retro feel. Also charming is the writing style; Kilarski writes from experience and includes lots of anecdotes about her three "girls". By the end of the book you feel as if you're personal friends with Zsa-Zsa, Whoopee and Lucy.

I've already written about why (almost) everybody should keep chickens. If you're thinking about it, I'd recommend you start by reading "Keep Chickens!" (and of course my series of articles about getting started with chickens, part 1, part 2 and part 3).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lemon Curd

I made some lemon curd using Hedgewizard's recipe. Thanks, Hedgie, it's delicious and sooooo easy - you all must try it. Suitable for the preserve-challenged; forget massive cauldrons full of boiling hot jam, special thermometers and getting the whole kitchen covered in sticky goo. The whole process takes about 10 minutes from thinking "Hmm, maybe I'll make some lemon curd" to admiring your finished jar of golden yumminess. Plus it uses ingredients you probably have knocking around anyway - lemons, eggs, sugar, butter and cornflour. Finally, there's no problem with small batches. Just make a single jar if that's all you need.

Recipe for lemon meringue pie coming soon...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I've Got a Bike

Isn't Freecycle wonderful? It's the network of local groups where people post adverts offering stuff they don't need anymore and other people come and take it away. It was first described to me as "like eBay, but free". I love it.

At the weekend I collected bikes for me and Tom. Many thanks to Kate from Levenshulme and Mary from Whalley Range (fab house, by the way!) Sam can have Tom's old bike, and I'm still looking out for a bike for Ellie. If I can't find one on Freecycle before the summer holidays I'll have to buy one, but I don't mind. We've done very well to get so many bikes for nothing. Come to think of it, Ed's bike was a Freecycle find as well.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Drive Slower, Cut Carbon Emissions

How are you getting on with the Drive Slower Challenge? 33 people have voted so far and there are still 5 days left until the poll closes. If you want to vote, the poll is in the right-hand sidebar.

Why do I want you to drive slower anyway? Well, it's safer, and it saves fuel which saves you money, but mainly because it reduces carbon emissions. Some of you may be well-versed in the whole carbon issue, but I suspect many people are still kind of fuzzy on what it's all about. So here is:


Carbon dioxide is a natural part of earth's atmosphere, even though only in tiny amounts (4 parts in every 10,000). But it's the second most important greenhouse gas. That means it has a huge effect on the atmosphere's capacity to retain heat, trapping energy in our atmosphere.

It's not the most important greenhouse gas - that would be water vapour. The amount of water vapour in our atmosphere isn't changing. But the amount of carbon dioxide is, because in recent human history we have burnt off massive amounts of coal and oil and natural gas - fossil fuels. I'm sure you remember from school science lessons that fossil fuels are formed from prehistoric living organisms, such as animals and plants, that got trapped under rock and buried deep under the earth. This sealed away enormous amounts of carbon and stored it up for millions of years. But in just the last hundred years we have dug most of it up and burned it, releasing it into the atmosphere again.


All this extra carbon dioxide increases our atmosphere's capacity to store energy. Overall, this means global temperatures are rising. But locally it can mean warming or cooling, more rain, or drought. It means the disruption of familiar patterns and weather chaos. Some sceptics gets their knickers in a twist about this, but it makes sense. My friend Jim Finnis once explained that the climate is a bit like a child's swing. If you put more energy into it, say by giving it a hard shove to the left, you don't expect it to just move over to the left and stay there. You expect it to swing about more, both more left and more right. More energy means more everything. Just more weather.


Good question. I feel really strongly that we can't dither about and wait for someone else to fix this for us. I hope that governments will do something to fix it, but that will only happen if the voters demand it. I hope that businesses will do something, but that will only happen if stockholders demand it. I hope that scientists will find more solutions to it, and they are doing that. But we already know the solution - every one of us has to take responsibility for emitting less carbon dioxide.

Driving slower is one way to start.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

How To: Make a Lacewing Shelter

Do you remember when garden centres just used to sell gardening stuff? Now they sell everything from hand cream to cream teas. They seem to do a roaring trade in wildlife shelters, like mason bee boxes, ladybird houses, and bug blocks. I'm really glad that more people are taking an interest in our native wildlife, and trying to help them along. But at the risk of upsetting Wiggly Wigglers again (just teasing) you can make most of these things yourself out of recycled materials.

Here's how to make a lacewing shelter (why would you want to make a lacewing shelter? because lacewings are beautiful, and also because their larvae gobble up aphids like there's no tomorrow).

You will need some corrugated cardboard, an empty fizzy drinks bottle, scissors or a craft knife and some twine.

First of all rinse the fizzy drinks bottle and cut the bottom off. Leave the lid on, otherwise rain will soak the cardboard.

Then cut a strip of corrugated cardboard slightly shorter than the length of your bottle. It's important to cut it across the corrugations, not along them. This is the hardest direction to cut in. So if you're finding it very easy to cut, you're probably cutting it the wrong way.

Score a few lines close together at one end of your strip to make it easier to roll up. Then roll the strip really tightly.

Jam it into the fizzy drinks bottle. It needs to be a really tight fit. If it isn't, add more strips of card until you have a nice tight fit.

Tie some twine around the neck and hang it up. Lacewings will shelter inside. You can change the cardboard once a year if it gets ratty.

See? Easy. But if you don't want to make one you can buy ready-made bug habitats from Wiggly Wigglers, who are very nice people.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Famous Allotmenteers

Did you know Albert Einstein had an allotment in the Kolonie Bocksfelde in Berlin-Spandau in the early 1920s? It seems he wasn't a very assiduous allotmenteer, because he was sent a note by the local authority taking him to task about the state of his plot:

You are presently leasing allotment 2 at the Burgunderweg in Boxfelde. Said allotment has not been managed since a long time, weeds have spread all over the whole parcel and have soared. The fence is not in order, and the whole allotment makes an unesthetic impression. We have to assume that you are no longer interested in leasing the parcel, and we will give it away to someone else, unless you object prior to the 25th of this month, and the allotment is put in order until that date. Please take care of the removal of this nuisance, and give us further notice.

So that's two things I feel good about - I'm a better allotmenteer than Einstein and I'm probably a better physicist than Monty Don.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Bee Hives

I collected some empty bee hives from a nice woman I met at the apiary meeting. I also collected a travelling screen from the nice chap I met at the same time. I'll need these hives to move Ally's WBC hives, because apparently you can't just move a WBC hive, you have to transfer the bees into a National hive first.

Just to keep things complicated.

So now I'm off to spend a happy hour going over the hives with a blowlamp to sterilise them.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Happy Solstice

It's midsummer day[1]. Today is the longest day, and tonight will be the shortest night of the year. The sun reaches its highest point in the sky at midday today, and hangs motionless at 6 minutes past 6 this evening with minimal north or southwards motion. It's a magical time of year.

I hope 2007 has been good to you so far, and will continue to be so. Enjoy this special day.

[1] In the northern hemisphere. If you live in the southern hemisphere it's midwinter. And if you live on the equator it's just another day, hot, with a high chance of thunderstorms later.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Washing balls

I tried a different kind of washing ball from Lakeland. They're just heavy plastic balls that agitate your clothes in the machine and bash the dirt out of them.

I wish I had some way of telling whether clothes are cleaner, or wear out quicker, or fade more, depending on what type of washing additive you use. But in absence of a scientific method here are my findings about eco-laundry:
  • Using laundry detergent gets your clothes clean
  • Using "eco" laundry detergent gets your clothes clean
  • Using soap nuts gets your laundry clean
  • Using "eco balls" gets your clothes clean
  • Using heavy plastic washing balls gets your clothes clean
  • Using nothing at all gets your clothes clean - even when all the residual detergent has been flushed out of your machine
In conclusion - that whole aisle of the supermarket selling dozens of different types of laundry detergent, liquids, tabs, softeners, bleaches, stain removers, wash additives - it's all a con. Unless your clothes get unusually grubby - if you are weaning your baby and his clothes are regularly covered with spaghetti hoops, if you are a smallholder and your clothes are often caked with mud and pig dung, then yes you may need to use detergent for those washes. But I've found it's not necessary for most "normal" washes.

I wash all my clothes on 30 degrees with plain water and no detergent. Most stuff comes out clean. Some things need a rub with some kind of stain remover and washing again - but that also happens when you use detergent. Dry things outdoors when you can. Not only does it save energy, but the sunlight whitens clothes and kills bacteria (if you're worried about bacteria).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How To: Perk Up Your Houseplants

Some of my houseplants were looking a bit sorry for themselves, so over the weekend I gave them a bit of TLC. Here's my procedure for houseplants.

1. Compost any that are dead, crispy, or in any other way a basket-case. Feel guilty. Promise yourself you will remember to water/not to overwater them in future. Make a list of the species that died and remember never to buy that type again.

Half the secret of success with houseplants is to quickly get rid of any that are dying and look terrible.

2. Gently tip each surviving houseplant out of its pot to see if it needs repotting. If it does, the roots will be thick and visible, tangled inside the rootball. If you can see mostly soil and only a few fine roots, it's probably OK where it is. Remember which ones need repotting.

3. Put a couple of inches of water in the bath with some plant food. Stand all the houseplants in the bath, and gently mist them with the showerhead, so the soil gets wet from the top and the bottom. After an hour or so they should all be feeling much perkier.

4. Repot any plants that need it. Just find a slightly bigger pot, put a little potting compost in the bottom and carefully place the rootball on top. Fill in the gaps with more compost, and put a layer on top, firming it down with your fingers. It's important to give the plant a really good drink, but I don't usually bother with teasing out the roots. The roots seem to manage to grow outwards in their own time.

5. Snip any brown, dead leaves and rotten flowerheads off the plants. My mum used to cut the brown ends off spiderplants, and then trim them back to nice points. She called it "giving them a haircut". She could be a bit odd sometimes...

6. Occasionally when you trim a plant in this way, it only has three or four healthy leaves left and looks rather tragic. In these cases I tend to make cuttings. Snip off the healthy leaves with their stems, or sections of the plant, then push them into small pots of damp potting compost. You can compost the stem and rootball. With luck they will begin to root. You can't tell - don't pull them up to see if they have or not. If they die, then they didn't root, and if they stay alive, well they must have rooted. In a while they will start putting out new leaves and grow. Voila - several new healthy houseplants from one ailing houseplant!

7. You can also take cuttings of any plants which are healthy and thriving, of course, and this is an excellent idea. The other half of the secret of success with houseplants is to learn which varieties thrive under your own conditions and combination of neglect/overattention. Then specialise in that variety. Everyone will say "Oh, she's terribly good with begonias (or whatever)", and they don't need to know that begonias are the only things that survive in your house. Tip: spider plants are almost indestructible.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Eddie Izzard - Covered In Bees

Thanks to Hedgewizard for finding this YouTube clip of comic Eddie Izzard talking about beekeeping. My sister Lindsey and her husband Andrew keep quoting this at me every time I mention bees, but I'd never seen the clip before. Now I know what they're going on about.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Beekeepers' Meeting

I went to a meeting of my local beekeeping association yesterday. We had a demonstration by a chap who was knowledgeable and an excellent communicator. I learned a lot from watching about a dozen hive inspections, which uncovered a wide range of problems as well as many healthy colonies.

There was also an opportunity to socialise, and I made friends with a few fellow-beginners. I also bent the ear of an experienced and helpful chap who gave me clear instructions on how to move a WBC hive. Ally over at Ducking for Apples mentioned that she was selling two WBC hives. But everyone I asked made that sucking noise with their teeth and said "Oooooh, you don't wanna do that. You can't move WBC hives. Everyone knows that."

That struck me as nonsense. How did Ally get them in the first place? I was sure it had to be possible, even if maybe a bit of a struggle, I just needed a set of instructions telling me how. Although if any of these nay-sayers had gone on to add "Fred over in Wilmslow is selling a second-hand National hive and bees", I'd have taken their arm off. But they never did.

So now I'm trying to find a weekend when I'm free, Ally's free, and my friend who has a van and is daft enough to help me move a hive full of bees is also free. Then I'm going to get me some bees!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Green Father's Day Ideas

It's nearly father's day, but you can probably guess that I'm not buying a ride-on lawnmower, a set of alloy wheels, or a gas-fuelled barbecue for Ed or my dad. I'm looking for something more earth-friendly and personal.

I'm thinking about charity gifts, such as adopting a tiger in Laos, a vegetable plot for a family in Bangladesh, or training a teacher in the Philippines.

Or alternatively home-made gift tokens, such as "I promise to send you a hand-written letter once a month", or "I promise to telephone you once a week" or "I promise to make you a quilt by this time next year".

One of those would be good for my dad. For Ed the gift token would probably say "I promise to cook your favourite meal once a week and not even serve salad with it", or "I promise to blow off choir practice, committee meetings, marking etc. once in a while and spend the evening with you", or "I promise that for one whole weekend I will let you choose all our activities and not demand that you do any gardening, DIY, shopping or drag you to a craft fair or farmer's market against your will".

So go on, dad, Ed - take your pick (you only get to pick one, though!)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Manor Garden Allotments Update

I've been following the fate of Manor Garden Allotments, the allotment site in London which is due to be bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympics.

The BBC reported yesterday that an agreement had been reached to allow the plot holders access to their allotments until September, to harvest some of this year's crops. The official website for the Manor Gardens Allotments Society reported that they are cancelling the judicial review which was due to begin yesterday.

They seem resigned to their fate of moving site. John Matheson, chairman of the Manor Gardening Society, said
Our best hope was that we could have remained on the Olympic site in the course of the Olympics, but that seems no longer feasible, if it ever was. We shall now go into temporary exile for seven years, and then return to an Olympics legacy site once the games are over.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

New Beesuit

My new beekeeping suit arrived in the post. I also have a smoker, a hive tool, gloves, extremely natty spats, and a cheap and crappy plastic queen cage which is only fit for the bin.

It seems like I'm already to go, but I get the feeling I'm still missing something. Whatever could it be?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bloody Birds

I'm using shredded paper instead of straw to keep my strawberries off the ground. That seems to be stopping the slugs, but now the bloody birds are eating my ripe strawberries. I need to net the strawberry patch now to stop the blighters getting in. Any experience on netting strawberry patches?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Birthday Week - What's In Store?

We'll round off our birthday week celebrations with a look at what's in store for the next 12 months.

  • I'm looking forward to getting my own bees sometime soon. I'm unlikely to get any honey this year, but if all goes well and they build up enough stores of honey and pollen they'll survive the winter and be ready to go again next spring.

  • Harvest 2007 from our new bigger allotment plot. Spuds are new this year, pumpkins, cucumbers, strawberries and soft fruit. I'm dying to see how they turn out.

  • I'm keen to add a webcam to the site, either focused on the chickens or the bees.

  • I want to be ready for the mushroom season this year so I'll be finding out about courses or talks and investing in a good mushroom book.

  • Visiting farms and working and learning on them. The trouble is every weekend on the calendar seems to be filled in already, in between Open University tutorials and choir concerts, June is already totally booked up. Perhaps I should arrange something in July before those weekend get filled in, too. I'll look into that urgently.

  • Apart from that, it'll be more of the same. More challenges, more book reviews, more recipes, more reports of what we're doing here in North Cheshire to live the good life and work towards buying a smallholding of our own. We're not fixated on the destination, though. We're enjoying the journey. And even if we ever get our own smallholding, that won't be "the end", it will just be the start of a whole new journey. I'm glad that so many readers want to share the journey with us. I hope you'll stick around.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Birthday Week - Links

When I started writing Bean-Sprouts one year ago this week, I was something of a blog virgin. I had spent a bit of time surfing the blogosphere, but because my surfing wasn't really targeted I discovered that 99% of blogs are crap. The trick is to find the 1% that are interesting and worth reading. I was lucky to find quite early on some great self-sufficiency and gardening blogs. By reciprocal links, by leaving comments on good blogs and having good bloggers comment here, I now feel part of a community of green, sustainable living bloggers, which is an unlooked-for bonus.

Here are a few of my favourite blogs and bloggers:
  1. Pumpkin Soup - great content and a great look on this allotment blog

  2. Welsh Girl's Allotment - another allotment blogger, it's been fun watching her start from a severely bramble-infested plot and building it up into a little patch of heaven

  3. The Worsted Witch - witty craft blog with attitude

  4. …but it’s dirty! - Burro is totally bonkers. His gardening blog is always a good read

  5. Musings from a Stonehead - Stonehead is several years ahead of where we are now, working his own smallholding in Aberdeenshire and writing a warts-and-all account of it

  6. Hedgewizard's Diary - Hedgie has been a great friend of Bean-Sprouts from the beginning, and I enjoy reading his rants and rambles as much as his accounts of planting, sowing and harvesting

  7. Welcome to Voluntary Simplicity - Dibnah is in a similar situation to us, trying to live a simple and thoughtful life without moving to a five-acre smallholding in the back of beyond

  8. Ducking for Apples - Ally proves you can have chickens, bees, grow vegetables, get pregnant, and still keep your sense of humour

  9. Irish Sally Garden - much further along the sustainable living continuum than we are, and a continuous source of inspiration

  10. The Allotment Junkies - two friends write about how their allotment is coming along, and their harrowing experiences with the mental health care system, both with equal optimism and insight
There are loads of other blogs in the right-hand sidebar. Why not have a browse and look at some you haven't seen before? When you find one you really like, I recommend you either:
  • Save it in your browser's "favourites"

  • Subscribe to the feed so you receive the latest posts by email

  • Or save it in a blog aggregator so you can read all the latest posts from your favourite blogs just by visiting one web page
That way you can find it again easily and keep up-to-date with the latest posts effortlessly.

Birthday Week - Photos

(We caught the mouse! But we're keeping setting traps in case there are any more.)

As Bean-Sprouts' first birthday week comes to a close, I thought I'd share some of my favourite photos from the past year.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Birthday Week - Challenges

Every month we issue a new challenge to readers, and put up a poll so you can tell us what you've done. It's another way to have interaction with Bean-Sprouts readers. But really the purpose is to challenge ourselves to live greener and more thoughtfully. The challenges this year were:
  1. The Kettle Challenge 26 votes

  2. Switch It Off 13 votes

  3. Car Tyre Pressure 12 votes

  4. Turn Down Your Thermostat 13 votes

  5. Visit A Farmer's Market 15 votes

  6. Green And Clean 42 votes

  7. Ditch the Disposables 16 votes

  8. Reduce Junk Mail 34 votes

  9. Save Water - Recycle A Brick 22 votes

  10. Tariff Change 23 votes
220 people voted in the polls last year, and as you can see from the mega-challenge-chart, most of you are already pretty green. That's fantastic. Even better is that 71 people pledged to make changes to be more green in future. I hope you're all keeping up the good work.

This month's challenge is to drive slower and save fuel. There's a poll for it in the right-hand sidebar.

My favourite thing about the challenges is the unexpected routes they often lead me down. For example I learned that
Thanks to all of you for the questions, tip-offs and leads you provided along the way. I'm really looking forward to what we can do and learn in the next 12 months of Bean-Sprouts challenges.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Two Weddings And A First Communion

As we celebrate Bean-Sprouts first birthday, what have been the big events and changes this year?
It's not been a year of earth-shattering events, but the main change has been the change of direction that prompted us to start this blog. I realised that all my life I had daydreamed about owning a smallholding and living off the land, even though I had never talked about it or even acknowledged it to myself. The TV series It's Not Easy Being Green made me acknowledge that dream and bring it into the open. I found out that my husband, Ed, shares the same dream, and so we started working together to make it a reality. I'm really happy about the practical steps we have already made towards that dream, and I'm excited about what the future holds.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Birthday Week - Statistics

(Quick mouse update - Ed laid a trap, baited every day with peanut butter but not set, for a week. Every day Mr Mouse ate the butter. After a week, Ed set the trap. Next day the trap was untouched, peanut butter not eaten. Day after that, peanut butter gone, trap sprung, but no mouse. I think we're dealing with Pinky and The Brain)

As part of Bean-Sprouts birthday week, I've rounded up some of the statistics and numbers from the previous year:

  • over 30,943 visitors have viewed the site this year (see the counter at the very bottom of the page for the latest figure)

  • They left 1,428 comments

  • I wrote 336 posts

  • This blog is ranked 74 out of 5000 in the Brit Blog charts (top 1.5%)

  • It is ranked 39,305 out of 77 million by Technorati (top 0.5%)

  • 117 blogs link to this one

  • We've been linked to by national newspapers The Times Online and The Scotsman
This is all just unabashed showing off, because I'm really pleased with how this blog has grown in just one year. I hope I can continue to write regular interesting content for the next twelve months, and I hope you'll all keep reading and commenting.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Birthday week - most popular post by comments

I love it when readers leave comments. Often they inspire me to write a new post or set a new challenge, for example Andrew's comment on Rats! led me to write about humane pest control, and Elfie's question about Washing Balls prompted a series of experiments into the effectiveness of laundry balls and dryer balls which are probably the most-visited pages of the blog.

Here's a list of the posts which have attracted the most comments in the past year.

10= Top Ten Reasons Why Everybody Should Grow Food (14 comments)
10= Washable Menstrual Pads (14 comments)
8= Cash Crop (15 comments)
8= Ways With Cabbage (15 comments)
8= Washing Balls (15 comments)
5 10 Reasons Why Everyone Should Keep Chickens (20 comments)
4= How Green Is Your Car? (19 comments)
4= Frugal Mindset (19 comments)
2 A Load of Old Laundry Balls (20 comments)
1 Ditch the Disposables (26 comments)

By the way, happy birthday to my baby sister, Lindsey.