Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An Anglo-Saxon Riddle

A young man made for the corner where he knew she was standing;

this strapping churl had walked some way--with his own hands he whipped up her dress,

and under her girdle (as she stood there) thrust something stiff, worked his will; they both shook.

This fellow quickened:

one moment he was forceful, a first-rate servant,

so strenuous that the next he was knocked up, quite blown by his exertion.

Beneath the girdle a thing began to grow

that upstanding men often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

Go on then - what do you think it is?

Review: Guide to Bees and Honey

Ted Hooper's Guide to Bees and Honey is the beekeeping bible. There are a heck of a lot of books about beekeeping available and I'm prepared to bet that each of them contradicts all the others in significant ways. But Ted Hooper is universally regarded as the last word.

So what, if any, are the drawbacks to a book which unites all beekeepers?
  • It's not a light bedtime read, unless you suffer from insomnia. It's extremely dense and detailed. This is what makes it so valuable, but if you try to read it cover to cover (as I did)your brain will eventually dribble out of your ears.

  • Hooper writes from a British perspective. For example it deals almost exclusively with National hives, which are by far the most common in Britain. In other countries, different hive designs and even different bees predominate.

  • The book tells you everything you might want to know, but it doesn't tell you what to do. I'm sure this is deliberate - I'm all in favour of encouraging people to develop and use their common sense, rather than relying on dumbed-down instructions for every situation. But some of the other students on the course I attended a few months ago yearned for a clear set of instructions, at least when they were just getting started.

  • Some of the instructions do seem downright dodgy. For example I read the section on moving colonies very carefully before collecting my bees a few weeks ago. Hooper said one should knock two-pronged staples into the hives to hold them together in transit. My other major beekeeping reference (Yates and Yates Beekeeping Study Notes) disagreed, saying this was a really good way to annoy the bees and make lots of holes in your woodwork. I agreed, and relied on ratchet straps and a lot of sticky tape instead.

If you keep bees, or would like to keep bees, and are British, you really have to own this book. Make sure you get an up-to-date version. The early editions pre-date the varroa mite, for example, and other important recent developments in British beekeeping, but the latest editions have been brought up-to-date. Once you know the book inside out and back to front, you can choose to ignore the advice in it and keep bees your own way. But when you are starting out you should follow Hooper's advice closely, and you won't go far wrong.

Butter Making

Butter is easy to make in small quantities, and a lot of fun. We bought some double cream a few days ago (you can't make butter with really fresh cream), then poured it into a huge jam jar and took turns shaking it. Don't fill your jam jar - it needs lots of room to "slosh" so you should have it less than half full.

It can take any time between 10-30 minutes to become butter so it's better if you have lots of people willing to take turns shaking the jar. After a while the cream stops going "slosh slosh" and becomes silent. At this stage you have whipped cream. Keep shaking. Some time after that it suddenly goes "thud thud". Now you have a pat of butter in a puddle of buttermilk and you can stop shaking.

There's more work to be done. The buttermilk will turn your butter rancid quickly unless you can separate it all away from the butter. So pour the puddle of buttermilk into a cup and save it, but there is more buttermilk trapped inside the butter, like a sponge. Fill the jam jar with clean water, slosh it around, then pour the water away. Keep doing this until you have washed the butter clean. Now turn your pat of butter onto a wooden board and squeeze it with your hands to get the trapped buttermilk out. When you have pure butter you can stop.

You can use the buttermilk to make soda bread or scones and then spread the butter on them. If you have any home made jam as well, you're in for a feast.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Are The Floods Due To Climate Change?

Are Britain's floods caused by man-made climate change? I've heard the question asked by TV journalists a lot recently, and the usual answer is "We can't tell". A better answer would be "The question doesn't make sense". I'll explain why:

Climate change means that extreme weather events become more common. We have always had occasional extreme weather events. The summer of 1956 was a dreadful one, with gales, heavy rain and floods. So extreme weather events are not new, they're just going to become more common.

It's a bit like rolling a dice. If you roll a normal dice hundreds of times, you'll roll a "1" one time in every six. But imagine if I gave you a loaded dice that rolled a "1" one time in every three. Now you roll the dice a few times until it rolls a "1". "Is that 1 due to the fact the dice is loaded?" you ask. But the question doesn't make any sense.

Having a loaded dice means that the overall pattern of dice rolls changes, compared to a normal "fair" dice. But any single dice roll is a random occurrence based on the characteristics of the dice. So climate change means the overall pattern of our climate is changing, but any single weather event is still a one-off unpredictable occurrence.

Would we have had floods in Britain in 2007 if it weren't for climate change? Well, maybe we would, maybe we wouldn't. All you can say with certainty is that climate change means we'll have extreme weather more often than in the past.

Sorting Spuds

Steph and I washed and sorted the last of the spuds (with a bit of help from 3-year-old Rebecca). We also ran up lots of drawstring bags out of some old curtain fabric to store them in.

This lot were mostly Kestrels. They gave a good yield and the spuds were a good size. We've separated the biggest off into a bag labelled "bakers", and we'll definitely grow them again to provide baking potatoes.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Chadkirk Festival

All eight of us (five of us Rimmers and Steph's family) went to the Chadkirk Festival yesterday. The weather was glorious and we all overheated in our jumpers and raincoats. The festival is small enough to get round easily but big enough to be interesting. There were people in period dress doing folk dancing, stalls selling local crafts and stalls promoting local charities and organisations, and other interesting things going on including a chainsaw demonstration and a beekeeping demonstration.

The main reason I wanted to go is that one of my bee guys told me he was doing the beekeeping demonstration there, and if I brought my beesuit I could go behind the scenes. I couldn't imagine what a beekeeping demonstration might involve so I was fascinated.

It turns out that he has several hives in the walled garden of Chadkirk chapel, surrounded by a seven-foot high mesh screen. So people can see the hives, and the bees coming and going, from close-to, but the bees mostly fly off at well over head height so don't cause any problems to passers-by. The demonstrator stands around in his beesuit and answers questions from the public. I got to go inside the screen and look at all the different kinds of hives, including the familiar Nationals and WBCs, and also the more exotic top-bar and Dartington hives.

Stephanie chatted to the mayoress, the kids all made puppet dragons, and won prizes by hooking plastic ducks in a bowl of water, and we all ate ice-cream and had a super time. The festival is also on today so if you're in the area I'd recommend you go along. Admission is £1 for adults, free for children.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


I've come across a wonderful website called Roadwitch. It's about DIY traffic calming - people in a quiet residential street got fed up with traffic speeding dangerously along the road, and fed up waiting for the local authority to do something about it, so they took matters into their own hands in a creative, whimsical, and very effective way. For example, they set up a living room in the street which created a physical barrier to fast-moving traffic and a psychological reminder that the street is there primarily for people to live in, not primarily for cars to race along.

I love this. I sympathise deeply with the people v. cars dimension. I love the "power to the people" element. And the humour and whimsy of it is also very appealing.

The Joy of Sets

I planted some onion sets way back in the early spring and we've taken a good harvest of onions. I plaited them together (not very neatly I'm afraid) and hung them up in the garage.

Onions are very cheap to buy in the shops, and home-grown ones don't really taste different from shop-bought ones, so a lot of people don't bother growing them. But there are arguments in favour of growing them:
  • Onions are very easy to grow
  • Fewer food miles
  • Organic onions are more pricey than conventionally grown ones in the shops but you can grow organic onions easily
  • They keep well so you don't have to mess about with successional planting, just grow a crop and store it until you need it
  • The sheer satisfaction of having a few months' worth of onions hanging up in the garage
  • Everyone uses lots of onions

Friday, July 27, 2007

My Beekeeping Assistant

Steph, my sister, wanted to see the bees, so I lent her a spare bee veil. She came with me to the apiary and helped me feed one of my colonies which is dangerously low on stores of food. She was a very able assistant (although she did let the smoker go out).

She seemed to get a buzz out of it (sorry), and it gave me a boost to pretend to be an expert to someone who knows even less than I do. I'm rapidly regaining my confidence and enjoyment for working with my bees.

Tea Time

Mel's Muffins

Sift 10oz wholemeal plain flour with a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of baking powder. Beat 2 eggs, half a pint of milk and 4oz melted butter together in a large bowl then fold in the flour gently. Add 3oz sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence and something else, such as:
  • chocolate chips

  • chopped apple and mixed spice

  • lemon rind and poppy seeds

  • fresh berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, chopped strawberries etc.
You can really make it up as you go along.

Drop dollops of the mixture into cake cases or holes in a muffin tin. Bake in a moderate oven (about Gas 6/200degrees C) until they're done (it depends on the size of your muffins - 10-15 minutes for little ones, 20-25 minutes or so for huge ones).

Rich Scones

Sift 8oz organic self raising flour with a pinch of salt. Rub in 2oz butter and stir in 1oz sugar and 2oz sultanas. Beat an egg in a measuring jug and add enough milk to make 1/4 pint of liquid. Mix the liquid with the flour and butter mixture until it forms a stiff dough. Roll it out and cut it into dinky little circles. Brush the top with the leftover egg and milk mixture and bake on a greased baking sheet in a moderate oven until the tops are golden (about 10 minutes). Serve warm with Steph's homemade hedgerow jelly and extra thick double cream.

Serve on your beautiful home-made recycled cake stand.

Cake Stand

My sister, Steph, is visiting and we're being creative with old china plates.

Last night I made this cake stand out of three charity-shop plates, two charity-shop sherry glasses, some araldite and some very careful measuring to find the centres.

We got the idea from Making Stuff: An Alternative Craft Book by Ziggy Hanaor and Victoria Woodcock.

Just got to make some cakes now.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I Believe...

I believe that when greenies say "reduce, reuse, recycle", all people actually hear is the "recycle" bit.

The order of those three things matters -

  1. First, reduce, then
  2. reuse - then, and only then
  3. recycle

Recycle is the last-ditch option (not counting the unthinkable - landfill). Recycle is not the first option.

If you're recycling more than your neighbours, don't feel smug. Ask yourself "Is there any way I could reduce the amount of stuff coming into my household in the first place, so I'd have less stuff to recycle? And is there any way I can reuse any of this stuff rather than recycling it?"

We all know we're supposed to "slim our bins", and send less stuff to landfill. The next step is to persuade people to slim their recycling, by putting reduction and reuse first.

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Yesterday I visited my friend Guy in Telford. Guy is extremely handy and has made a water collection system for flushing his downstairs loo. It's not hooked up yet, but I got some snaps of the water butt on a five-foot-high stand, and the filter unit to keep out undesirables. What I don't yet understand is how he's going to arrange things so it flushes with mains water when the butt is empty, but I'm looking forward to going back when it's all up and running.

I also had a go on his new wood-turning lathe. Guy had already made beautiful magic wands for the kids out of scraps of cedar and mahogany reclaimed from old windows. He made me a bodhran beater while I watched, and I even had a go on the lathe myself. I made something that resembles a lumpen Venus of Willendorf but I am very proud of it nevertheless.
I've promised him some beeswax for wood finishing when I collect any.

All's Well That Ends Well

The bees are gone, and they don't have to move again. Hurrah!

Two lovely septuagenarian blokes from my local beekeeping association came late last night and helped me move the hives to an out-apiary (a place you keep your bees that's away from home) a few miles away. I'd met one of them briefly at a meeting, but the other I hadn't seen before. Yet both of them seemed positively delighted to help me out, and kept offering me advice and encouragement and bits of extra equipment until I felt quite overwhelmed with all the beekeeping love. Then one of them gave me a big hug (both of us in head-to-toe beekeeping suits) and said "We're all in this together, love". Ahhh.

So I feel happy and confident again about keeping my bees. It's a shame they're not at home because I liked looking out of the window and watching them going about their business. They're supposed to really improve gardens with all the pollinating they do, and I was looking forward to extra fruit on my trees and extra flowers in my flowerbeds. But they had to go. At least they're still mine, I still get to work them, and I get the honey and beeswax and so on. Also I've made two new friends, and I don't even think I've lost any.

That reminds me, I must try to speak to the postman.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More Bee Jokes

More bee jokes, to lighten the mood.

Q. How do bees get to school?
A. By school buzz.

Q. What goes zzub! zzub!?
A. A bee flying backwards.

Q. Why do bees buzz?
A. Because they can't whistle.

Freaking Out

A bee got in the house. I emptied a can of ancient insecticide that was lurking in the back of a cupboard all over it, then when it was weakened I hit it with a shoe.

You know me well enough by now to know that this is uncharacteristic behaviour. I think it's fair to say I'm freaking out.

The good news is a nice chap from the local beekeeper's association is coming this afternoon to move the bees back from the WBC hive into the National hive. Then this evening we'll move them to their emergency temporary accommodation. So they'll be gone, and my neighbours and husband will be talking to me again.

Was It A Starvation Swarm?

I sat bolt upright in bed last night, and not just because my foot (which had been stung twice) was killing me. I suddenly thought - was it a starvation swarm?

The thing is, despite what Ed says, bees don't act like that. That cartoon thing of enraged bees following you around and stinging random people out of sheer spite. It just doesn't happen. Except, yesterday, when it did.

The exception is when bees are starving, sometimes they swarm and then they're really aggressive. It's very very rare - the Uber Bee Guru who taught the course I attended in May said that he had only seen it twice in his long beekeeping career. But consider the facts:
  • Very agressive behaviour of previously mild-mannered bees
  • Smoking had no effect (smoking makes bees fill their stomachs with honey in preparation to escape from a forest fire. Starvation swarms aren't calmed by smoking because they have no honey to feed on)
  • It has been very poor foraging for months so we know honey stores are low
  • The hive we opened did have honey stores but they could have robbed that from the hive next door
  • So maybe it was the hive we didn't open that sent a starvation swarm
It fits the facts. And it's easy to fix - we just feed the bees.

They still need to go, to fend off lawsuits from the neighbours, the GPO, and divorce proceedings from Ed who is insisting he knew it would end up like this ("But no-one could have predicted this, it's a freak occurrence", "Well I predicted it", "Oh yes, your in-depth knowledge of bees gained from watching Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons is better than my measly knowledge gained from going on a course, reading lots of books, attending hive meetings at my local beekeepers' association...", "Well, it does, yes, because I predicted this and you didn't..." ad infinitum).

I feel better thinking there's an explanation for their behaviour other than they're just nasty evil bees who hate me and my neighbours.

But still, I have a confession. I'm now a bit scared of my bees.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When Bees Attack

Oh dear. We had a major bee catastrophe today and now the bees are going to have to go.

My bee guru, Don from Cheadle (I keep wanting to call him Don Cheadle but that's somebody else) came to help me move the bees into their WBC hives, and out of the temporary hives I used to fetch them in the first place. I told the kids to stay in the house and said I'd come back in soon. Don and I started transferring the bees over and they seemed very active, more active than they had been when we moved them from Ally's place a fortnight ago.

Then I heard a scream from next door "Aaargh! No! Get off me!", and the yelping of a dog. Oh s**t. Sounds like the neighbour has been stung, and his dog too. Bad news. Then I heard a shout from another neighbour further up the street "Mel! Would you pick up the postman's mail? He dropped it when he got stung". Then that neighbour got stung, too. Then the neighbour with the dog came out again, and got stung again. I ended up standing in the street waving to passing cars and signalling them not to stop, get out, or open their windows. It's amazing how ready people are to take instructions like that from someone in a bee suit covered in bees. One of the cars went right to the end of the cul-de-sac and collected the postman, then drove him back to his van at the other end of the road. We didn't get any mail today.

Don and I finished the job, and walked into the back garden, but angry bees followed us. It was like a Tom and Jerry cartoon with bloodthirsty bees bent on revenge following us in a big angry cloud. Don the bee guru kept saying "They'll go back in the hive soon", but when we'd been waiting for an hour and a half I'd had enough. I was thinking that what we really needed was a heavy downpour to drive the bees back into the hive, but wouldn't you know, this was the first day in three months where it hasn't rained all day.

But wait! I can make it rain! I have a lawn sprinkler! So I pulled out the lawn sprinkler and turned it on. It worked like a charm. The bees left us, Don was able to get back in his car and I was able to go back in the house and have a stiff drink.

I went out later and bought the neighbours a huge bunch of flowers and a tin of luxury dog food for the poor dog. I took it round and grovelled abjectly. I think they'll forgive me eventually. I spent the rest of the day on the phone to various people from my local beekeeping association. Someone is coming round in the morning with a view to moving the bees to an emergency temporary apiary, and then I'll have to arrange an out-apiary - a place well away from habitation but where I can still access my bees.

I'm not getting rid of the bees, but I'm moving them well away from the house, and from our street.

Frog Central

It was dry enough the other day to mow the lawn, but the job was made more complicated by having to avoid the frogs that were all over the place. I really didn't want to slice and dice them so I had to keep my eyes peeled and be ready to do an emergency stop at any time.

I've always known there were frogs, toads and newts in the garden. One year a toad hibernated in our compost heap, and I loved going to have a peek at him. But I've never seen so many of them.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What are Carbon Offsets?

This month I've been writing about carbon - what a carbon footprint is, how to calculate it, what it has to do with climate change, and so on.

Our modern lifestyles have released a lot of extra carbon into the atmosphere. Can we somehow trap it again? Trees trap carbon, so does the soil. Can I fly to Malaga as long as I pay someone to plant a bunch of trees for me? Does that work?

There's an interesting video about carbon sequestration which you should look at if you have about 9 minutes to spare. It explains how organic farming can help trap some excess carbon in the soil, which just adds to the long list of reasons why organic farming is a good idea. I love the guy who narrates it, Percy Schmeiser. He's pretty rubbish at looking natural in front of a camera and reading from a script, but this somehow makes his statements more convincing. He must know what he's talking about because he sure as hell wasn't chosen for his presenting abilities.

But that's different from paying someone to plant trees for you so you can fly to Malaga with a clear conscience. Carbon offsetting is a last-ditch option. It's like having chemotherapy when you've got cancer. You don't say "Oh, I might as well smoke as many cigarettes as I like because I can always have chemotherapy if I get cancer". Similarly we shouldn't say "It's perfectly OK to live a high-carbon lifestyle because I can afford to offset it by planting loads of trees someplace". It's a radical attempt to fix damage already done, not a "get out of jail free" card.

Yes, we should be planting trees, returning to organic farming, collecting methane and all the other carbon offsetting things. But we should be doing them to offset the damage we have already done, not as a sort of "indulgence" permitting us to carry on with our planet-damaging activities and still sleep soundly.

Frugal Subversive Award

One of the proudest moments in my life was my leaving party on my last day of working in a large mental institution. There's this thing called "institutionalisation" which means that people in an institution, both inmates and staff, change to conform to the requirements of the place. They often take these habits home with them, for example insisting that meals be served at a set time and becoming quite agitated if their routines are broken (working there was quite good practice for having children with Asperger's Syndrome, come to think of it). I'd been there for three years, and at my leaving party my boss said that I had never become institutionalised, and described me as a "maverick". I don't think he meant it as a compliment, but I was more pleased than I can tell you. Of all the things I've ever been called in my life, I like "maverick" by far the best.

So I was very pleased when Scarecrow gave me the Frugal Subversive Award.

According to a dictionary meaning this award translates as:"A radical supporter of political or social revolution (by) Avoiding waste"

Or as Rhonda (who initiated this award) put it:"bloggers who consistently turn their backs on consumerism to live frugally in a creative and authentic way. These bloggers have made me think in innovative ways about my own life and how I can make a difference making, reusing, and just saying "no" to mindless spending."

I've got to tag Stonehead, who is one of the most vocal opponents of consumerism I know.

Stop the Ride is a frugal blog. I love her scientific approach to saving money, calculating the cost-per-ounce of different brands and taking nothing for granted.

Wombat is a friend from when I used to spend a lot of time on Self-Sufficientish. I keep saying I'll go back there because they're a great bunch, but I find it a terible time-sink. I log on for "just a few minutes" and suddenly find an hour has gone by. Its my fault, not theirs. But now I can keep up with Wombat by reading his blog about taking three months off work to try to be more self-sufficient in an urban Aussie back yard.


1. When you are tagged, write a post with links to three blogs who have inspired you with their frugal creativity or innovation.

2. In your post, please link back to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme and save the award graphic.

3. Leave a comment or message for the bloggers you’re tagging, so they they know they're received the award.

4. Display the Frugal Subversive Award badge to identify your blog as part of the movement that is turning its back on consumerism at any cost.

Review: A Slice of Organic Life

I always wanted to write a book. Unfortunately someone else has gone and written it. A Slice of Organic Life by Sheherazade Goldsmith (I've been reading too much Harry Potter - that sounds like a great name for a witch) is subtitled "Get Closer to the Soil Without Going the Whole Hog", and it's full of projects you can do to become slightly more self-sufficient. From picking wild berries or raising herbs on a kitchen window ledge, through making compost or growing potatoes in a barrel, to keeping a cow or a couple of pigs, there is a project in here for everyone, whatever your space or your budget.

It's by Dorling Kindersley, so of course it is beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated with such gorgeous photographs it makes pig poo look glamorous. There are lots of suggestions in here I haven't already done, so I'll look forward to using this book as a reference when we get our first goat for example.

I bought it from Borders, so I've already failed in my attempt to buy more second-hand books. But it's a really good book so there. I just wish I'd written it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What is Permaculture Anyway?

I've added a few new blogs to my blogroll, and invited them to link back to me. I'm always happy to exchange links with like-minded bloggers. Just email me if you'd like to swap links. One of the new links is called Permaculture in Brittany. The blog owners Stuart and Gabrielle emailed me to suggest a new "Permaculture" section in my links.

What is permaculture anyway? Well, as I understand it, it's the philosophy of working with nature rather than against it. So instead of battling weeds, fighting pests, combating your local conditions of soil, light, water, climate etc. you instead see yourself, the gardener, as part of a whole ecosystem.

I've written about the principle of return - that you take nothing away from the land unless you can return something of equal or greater value. So our weeds are composted or turned into weed tea. That's very permaculture. And our edible vandal-proof hedge which serves multiple functions at once, is also very permaculture. Systems like companion planting, intensive spacing, and encouraging biodiversity are all very permaculture.

For a while I couldn't get my head around permaculture. It just sounded like plain common sense. I kept asking "But what is it?" Until it dawned on me - that's all it is. Common sense. It's just that common sense isn't all that common any more.

So, Stuart and Gabrielle , I don't think I'll add a "Permaculture" section, simply because I wouldn't know who to put in there. I think almost all my links could comfortably fit in a section labelled "Permaculture", but it wouldn't be very helpful just to have one big section with everybody in it. So I've put you in "Self Sufficiency Blogs" with Stonehead, Irish Sally Garden, Wombat and all the others. I think you'll agree you have a lot in common with them all, whether or not they'd describe themselves as permaculturists.

Have a Break...

Stephanie will probably shout at me for buying Nestlé, but my excuse is that now they've returned to the beloved paper-and-foil wrapping, KitKats' packaging is 100% recycleable, which is more than you can say for Geobars.

Cartoon from Throbgoblins. I've just noticed that I've printed these in reverse order so they don't make much sense. Doh! Next Sunday I'll be sure to print the cartoons the right way round.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ye Olde Country Weather Lore

If a slug is crawling up your milk bottle in the morning, then it's raining, and if ants are crawling all over your orange juice bottle, then the weather is dry.

Small Acts of Defiance

I spent a couple of hours on the allotment today in light rain, clearing the patch where the potatoes had grown and planting some new stuff, mostly things I bought in the garden centre.
I planted a large tomato plant, two rows of purple chard, three climbing french beans, and two sweet pepper plants.

In case you have been living in a cave, or are not British, or are reading this in the year 2107, I'll mention that the weather in Britain for the last two or three months has been consistently atrocious, with rain every day, hardly any sight of sun, and many areas suffering from floods. I haven't been able to get to the allotment, the weather has been so bad, and weeds are choking the plants which haven't been eaten by slugs and snails.

So I know the peppers will not survive, much less produce any fruit. It would take an unusually sunny hot year to grow peppers outdoors in Cheshire, and there is no end in sight to the cold and the rain. But I had to plant them as an act of defiance.

Potato Latkes

Grate two pounds of peeled potatoes and soak in cold water for at least a couple of hours. Strain the potatoes and dry them well, for example by wrapping in a tea towel and swinging them round your head. Do this outdoors. And don't blame me if you accidentally let go of a corner and decorate your garden with grated spuds. If you're chicken you could just pat them dry between sheets of kitchen paper. Put the potatoes in a large bowl and add a grated onion and plenty of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt. In a separate bowl, beat two eggs with two tablespoons of wholemeal self raising flour. Mix the egg mixture into the potato mixture.

Cook spoonsful of the potato batter in a frying pan with hot butter or oil. Serve hot.

They taste fantastic, especially when made with home-grown potatoes and onions and home-produced eggs.

Friday, July 20, 2007

How Green Is That?

I recently got a slow cooker because various people have tried to convince me that it's a covenient and economical way to cook. I've found a way to balance a bowl of bread dough on top of it so that the waste heat from the cooker helps rise the dough.

Thye bread turned out really well, and the potato and coconut slow cooker curry was delicious. Easy, delicious, home-grown and economical. That's the kind of meal I like.

Shopping Habits

Where do you go first when you want to buy something? Everyone has their favourite shops, whether it's a huge supermarket where you can buy everything from a tin of beans to household contents insurance, or an elegant department store where the staff treat you with deference, or a market full of alternative clothes, weird knick-knacks and new age bookstalls.

I like eBay for second-hand bargains. I ought to shop in charity shops more but I haven't the patience. They work best if you pop in a few times a week with a shopping list in your head, ready to snap up the perfect pair of shoes in your size (or whatever) as soon as they come in. I tend to only go shopping when there's something specific I want, so the sheer size of eBay means that if I want, say, a pair of size 7 cherry red pre-owned Doc Marten boots, they have 15 for me to choose from.

I also like Craigslist which is similar to eBay. In fact I prefer it to eBay because it's free, it's local, and it has stayed close to its hippyish roots. There's a funky counterculture feeling to it which tickles me immensely.

I have to admit to spending a lot of money on Amazon. My voluntary simplicity, anti consumerist, downshifted principles fall apart when it comes to books. I buy far too many books. I do also make regular use of my local library, which is a greener way to feed my reading habit. And I frequent my local bookshop. But I am trying to kick my Amazon habit and patronise Abe Books instead. You can search 13,500 booksellers selling over 1 million used books so I should be able to find anything I want there and salve my conscience at the same time. Maybe I should also release some of my books into the wild, via Bookcrossing.

But mostly I try to shop as little as possible. I am appalled that shopping is said to be the most popular leisure activity in Britain today. I am bewildered that a typical large supermarket will stock around 50,000 different product lines. Over-consumption is not only bad for the planet, I think it's also bad for the individuals who over-consume, in the same way that eating too much food or drinking too much alcohol is bad for you even though it may seem enjoyable at the time.

I try to think before I shop. First, I think whether I need to buy anything at all, and second, I think whether I could buy something second hand instead.

Bicycle Ride

Yesterday I took my first bicycle ride for a genuine errand, rather than just practicing how to stop and start and not fall off. I went to the village and back for a bottle of wine, about a 4 mile round trip.

All was going well until I tried to cycle over a railway bridge. I made it over the bridge (barely) but it took everything I had, and afterwards I had jelly legs. I had to get off and push for the last mile, but even then my legs kept giving out on me.

I'm familiar with this phenomenon from when I used to do distance running. Your legs don't hurt, they just won't hold you up. It happens when you push too hard. I used to get it doing speed work (when you sprint for a while, then jog for a while, then sprint, then jog etc.) So I understood why the railway bridge had done for me. When I got back home I sat down, ate a banana and drank some water and I was right as rain in a few minutes, so don't worry. I didn't do any damage, I just tried to do something my legs aren't strong enough for yet.

More practice required, I think. I'm determined to get the family cycling to school next September. I've just won an auction for a pink girls' bike on eBay for Eleanor, so now we all have bikes. The summer holiday has just begun so daily cycling trips are in order - avoiding bridges.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dead Zone in Gulf of Mexico Set to Break Records

Agricultural fertilisers which run off fields and flow into rivers form dead zones when they are washed out to sea. The fertilisers which feed farmers' crops also feed the microscopic plant life of the sea - algae. Huge sheets of algae form which starve the surrounding waters of oxygen. Nothing can live below - no fish, no sharks, no whales, coral, nothing.

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is expected to be a record-breaker this year, exceeding last summer's 6,662 sq miles (17,255 sq km). That's pretty close to the area of Wales (for some reason, these things almost always are). Imagine that - a region of sea which should be teeming with fish and other life, covered in a blanket of green algae but otherwise dead.

So next time you're wondering whether it's worth paying the extra for the organic fruit and vegetables, ask yourself instead whether the cheaper cost of conventional fruit and vegetables is worth a 6,662sq mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

I Believe...

I believe that the choices of millions of ordinary people are what shapes the world, not the actions of big organisations like governments or companies.

Companies only do what their customers demand, and governments do what their voters demand. Even despots have to keep in mind what their citizens demand - ask the Ceauşescus.

In the end it is the day-to-day choices of ordinary individuals that shape the world. So it is very important to make the right choices.

Do you agree, or do you think the wealthy and powerful make all the running, and it makes little difference what you do?

Elephant Escape

I was watching a news story on TV about two elephants who escaped from a Canadian circus. They did no damage apart from leaving some dung on someone's lawn. My 7-year old daughter Eleanor commented "I don't what those people are complaining about. At least they got some great manure".

That's my girl!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Big Green Switch

How are you all getting on with this month's challenge - to calculate your carbon footprint? I've found a great new website to help you reduce your footprint. It's called Big Green Switch, and it's a friendly, simple-to-use site aimed at the "keen to be green" - people who would like to become a bit greener but who aren't sure where to start.

For example, it has a list of fifteen suggestions to get started - simple but effective things you can do to green your lifestyle. And I was pleased to see a few things on there I haven't got around to myself yet, such as foil behind the radiators. That's a good idea for a future Bean Sprouts Challenge.

They also have a simple-to-use carbon footprint calculator (you'll need an electricity and a gas bill, and some idea of how many miles you drive per year). I just checked my footprint with it and it said I produce 5.81 tonnes of carbon per year, compared to the UK average of 9.4. Which isn't bad, but could still be a lot better when you consider that the worldwide average is 4 tonnes, and the average Indian, for example, produces 1.2 tonnes. Apparently domestic energy use is my downfall - above the UK average (probably because I work from home). Time to get some foil behind the radiators!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Rockin Blogger

21st Century Mummy has voted me a "Rockin' Blogger". Thanks, Mummy (I can call you that, can't I?).

I'd like to pass the award along to two other blogs that rock:

If you pop over to read them, don't expect much about saving the planet or recipes for wholemeal yogurt (although I wouldn't rule it out). But do expect to laugh your socks off.

Coconut Shy

We went to the summer fair at the kids' school last weekend. Tom won three coconuts on the coconut shy before I told the bloke to stop letting him play.

Does anyone have any good coconut recipes?

More importantly, does anyone have any tips for getting the meat out of coconuts easily?

Edited at 11:06

Thanks to Steph for pointing out this website that explains how to easily deal with coconuts. I just opened three coconuts and got out the milk and the meat, all in under ten minutes. Plus the bit where you wrap the coconut in a plastic bag, swing it over your head and smash it down on a concrete step is brilliant for working out your frustrations. Maybe Clodhopper should give it a go.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Empty Boat

There's an old Taoist parable I like a lot, about an empty boat.

If you are rowing your boat down the river, and another boatman crashes his boat into yours, you will shout and curse at him and tell him what a fool he is, and all day you will feel angry about the stupid boatman, and you will go home and tell your wife about the idiot boatman who crashed into you.

But if an empty boat crashes into yours, you will push it away with your oar and carry on your journey. You won't think about it any more.

So when something happens to frustrate you, tell yourself "It doesn't matter. It's just an empty boat", and don't think about it any more.

I like that a lot.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Summoned our courage and went to the allotment yesterday - the weeds were pretty awful but we got stuck in.

Ed cleared a bed we had weeded and dug but never planted anything in, and I dug up over 10 stones (over 60kg) of desiree and pink fir apple potatoes. There are still kestrel, red duke of york, and random unknown potatoes still waiting to be dug.

We also picked some blackcurrants, spanish onions and radishes.

Ed thinks that we need to do little and often on the allotment. I'm glad he's come to this decision himself - I didn't want to constantly nag him, but I was getting depressed by the state of the plot, and feeling too overwhelmed to tackle it alone.

We'll go over there again tomorrow and plant something in the beds we cleared - probably salad and fast "catch" crops. And we'll try to clear a little more.

Comic strip from Throbgoblins.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Cherry Picking Time

Not such a good season as last year, but still lots of morello cherries to be made into jam, pies, ice-cream, wine and cherry brandy.

Friday, July 13, 2007

First Bee Inspection

I've carried out my first solo bee inspection. It went really well and my confidence is building by leaps and bounds.

I've learned that:

1. The way I've set up the hives, I can't easily smoke hive 1 at the entrance

2. I don't have a whole lot of room for manoeuvre, the space is rather cramped

3. Smoking bees really is magical - they change from inquisitive and noisy to quiet and calm at a puff of smoke, but...

4. The hardest thing about beekeeping is the fine art of keeping your smoker alight

5. That's not quite true - the hardest thing about beekeeping is finding the bloody queen. If anyone can breed a strain of bees where the queen is fluorescent pink and flashes like an LED, I think they'd be onto a winner

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Skooperbox Competition Results

Bean-sprouts' first competition was a big success. We even received entries from people who didn't want to win the prizes, they just enjoyed doing logic puzzles. Three winners were pulled from a hat this morning, and packages of Skooperboxes are now winging their way to Rosemarie from Canada, Barry from Northampton and Jacqui from Leek. I hope they enjoy using their recycled biodegradable dog poop scoopers.

Thanks to Augustus from Skooperbox for donating the prizes. If any other green companies would like to donate prizes for competitions, we'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Allotmenteers Rock

I've said it before, allotment people are the greatest. I had an email from a friend on the allotments saying she hadn't seen me for a while. I confessed that I hadn't been down for a few weeks due to the appalling weather, and now I'm dreading going because the weeds must be neck-high.

She emailed me back to say she spent half an hour clearing weeds on my plot, and gave me an update about what's ready for harvest. I felt so touched, I almost cried.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

10 Reasons To Eat Organic

1. It's better for you.

2. It's better for your children. Because of their smaller size, children are more affected by pesticides in their food than adults, but feeding them organic food has been proved to significantly reduce their intake of pesticides.

3. It's better for the farmers and their families if they don't have to use pesticides and other toxic chemicals. This is especially true in countries which have less strict health and safety legislation.

4. It's better for the farm animals. Joyce d'Silva of Compassion in World Farming said "Organic farming has the potential to offer the very highest standards of animal welfare."

5. It's better for wild animals. In one study, organic farms were found to contain 85% more plant species, 33% more bats, 17% more spiders and 5% more birds than conventional farms.

6. It's better for the planet because it doesn't lead to soil erosion. Conventional farming is responsible for unsustainable soil loss, but organic farming actually builds the soil.

7. It doesn't lead to waterway pollution.

8. It doesn't depend on oil-based agrochemicals.

9. It uses less energy because it relies on people rather than machinery. David Milliband said “in many, but not all cases, [organic food] produces fewer greenhouse gases”.

10. It tastes better, and don't believe anyone who tells you they don't. Many years ago my sister Stephanie was helping me chop some carrots for our lunch and she ate a slice of carrot. Immediately she started exclaiming "Oh, oh, these carrots are wonderful! Why do they taste so good?" She hadn't known they were organic carrots.

Convinced? Why not sign up for an organic veg box to be delivered to your door?

Remember there are only two more days to enter our Skooperbox competition. There have only been seven correct entries so far, so your chances are excellent of winning a package of Skooperboxes, the recycled biodegradable dog poop scooper. All correct entries will be entered into a draw and winners will be announced on Wednesday.

Monday, July 09, 2007

We've Got Bees!

Wow! What a day that was!

A friend of mine with a big van and a bee suit (thanks Tony) drove me to Ally's place in mid-Wales. Ally and her lovely partner B sold us 2 colonies of bees in pretty WBC hives. That sounds quite simple doesn't it? But actually it took all day and was quite complicated. Ally and B also entertained us and fed us delicious soup and plenty of tea and coffee. They're lovely people and I'm so glad to have met them. They're going to be fantastic parents.

Driving for almost 3 hours with two colonies of irritated bees was a peculiar experience, and I have to admit the occasional feeling of "What the hell am I doing? I've changed my mind. Let me out!" But we had no escapees at all, probably due to the unstinting amounts of gaffer tape we used to hold everything together. We finally got back to Poynton after 11pm, moved the hives into my front garden and opened the entryways - the bees were making quite a racket inside the hives but they didn't come pouring out looking for blood.

This morning I can look out of my living room window and see the hives with bees busily coming and going. It's a really good feeling. There's nothing quite as relaxing as watching somebody else hard at work is there? And I could do with a rest now.