Sunday, September 30, 2007

Doing A Runner

My strawberry plants are propagating themselves. They put out runners - long horizontal stems with little baby plants on the end. The baby plants put down roots when they find a bit of soil, and the stem can then be cut to create an independent plant.

I need to weed the strawberry bed as you can see. Then I will be able to see where the plants are and decide if I need to move any of the runners. I'm happy to get more strawberry plants for free.

If you're wondering what all the white stuff is, it's shredded paper I used instead of straw to keep the fruits off the ground and away from slugs. It works well, but provides no defence against birds.

Ginger Beer

I'm trying to get my head round this whole ginger beer process. In the first stage you mix water, yeast, ginger and sugar to make a sort of ginger beer plant, then you feed it more sugar and ginger every day for a week.

So during that stage I guess the yeast multiplies and turns the sugar into a weak alcohol solution, and the whole liquid takes on the flavour of the ginger.

After a week you strain the solids off the liquid, then dilute the liquid with 7 pints of water, 1 1/2 lbs of sugar and the juice of 2 lemons. Then you bottle it and keep it in a warm place for another seven days.

During this stage the yeast will continue to turn some of the sugar to alcohol and liberate carbon dioxide gas. The gas can't escape because it is in sealed bottles, so will dissolve in the drink and make it fizzy. That's why I chose plastic fizzy drinks bottles to store it in (more of the glass beer bottles in the shed have exploded, by the way).

I kept the solid part after I strained the ginger beer plant, and mixed it with more water and sugar to make the next batch. It has revived very well and gets frothy when I mix it with more sugar every day. I wonder how much ginger was still present in it. Maybe the next batch will be more fiery than the first batch.

We can drink it in a week. I can't wait.

This week's cartoon is from Climate Cartoons. Click on the panel to enlarge it.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cheat Neutral

There's an exciting new website called where you can sign up to an infidelity offsetting scheme. So if you cheat on your partner, you can pay a small amount of money which will be invested in another couple who promise to be faithful on your behalf. Conversely, if you are in a rock-solid faithful relationship, you can benefit from another person's infidelity and receive a payment to help support your non-cheating lifestyle. Sounds bonkers? Of course it is.

Sounds familiar too, huh? That's because it's basically the same logic as carbon offsetting - paying money when you take a long-haul flight or buy a hummer, to be invested in planting trees somewhere to neutralise all the carbon you are responsible for emitting. The CheatNeutral website (which is of course a spoof - you did figure that out didn't you?) says that infidelity offsetting is comparable to carbon offsetting because:

1. Cheatneutral tries to make it seem acceptable to cheat on your partner. In the same way, carbon offsetting tries to make it acceptable to carry on emitting excess carbon.

2. Cheatneutral doesn't really do much to reduce the amount of cheating in the world. Carbon offsetting does very little to reduce global carbon emissions.

3. It seems impossible to measure how much harm cheating on someone does. With carbon offsetting, there is currently no practically feasible way of measuring how much carbon offset projects actually save.

4. Having Cheatneutral's services available could actually encourages you to cheat more. If the carbon offsetters persuade you that it's possible to offset your emissions, you'll carry on emitting excess carbon through your lifestyle rather than think about reducing your emissions.

5. Cheatneutral is fundamentally the wrong way to go about solving problems with your relationships. Carbon offsetting is fundamentally the wrong way to go about tackling climate change.

George Monbiot said that carbon offsetting is like the medieval idea of indulgences - paying money to the church in exchange for the forgiveness of sins. CheatNeutral says carbon offsetting is like cheating on your girlfriend then buying her jewellery and flowers afterwards. George Monbiot is my hero, but the CheatNeutral guys are funnier.

Via EcoChick

Allotment News

Ed and I went to the allotment yesterday. He did lots of weeding, and I sowed some seeds (quick-growing salad stuff - if the frost holds off we'll get a late crop, if not we've only lost a few seeds). I picked some runner beans, chard, tomatoes and radishes. And I spotted these toadstools nestling among my squash. I don't know what they are, they might be fly agaric. Anyway I don't fancy eating them. I don't want to make any pixies homeless.

Oh, and I forgot my new gadget. Of course, I spent the whole time seeing things that needed pruning or cutting or corkscrewing, but I couldn't because I didn't have my gadget.

I also found nine perfect raspberries on one of my raspberry canes. That would be one of the autumn raspberries, then. I didn't put them in a punnet and bring them home. I just stood there on my allotment and ate them, one at a time.

Palm Oil

What is palm oil anyway?

You may never have heard of palm oil but you have almost certainly bought plenty of it. It's the most widely-used edible oil in the world, and is found in many processed foods (it is estimated than one in ten supermarket foods contains palm oil) as well as soap, shampoo, make-up and toothpaste. It is also becoming an important biodiesel crop.

So what?

Well palm oil is pressed from the fruit of the tropical palm tree. Vast areas of rainforest are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. It is considered to be the main threat to orangutans, which could become extinct in twelve years due to palm oil. The Sumatran tiger and the Asian rhino are also critically endangered due to rainforest clearance and palm oil is the main culprit. Not to mention the bitter irony of felling our rainforests, those massive ancient carbon sinks, in a bid to grow biofuel which is touted as a solution to climate change.

What's more, palm oil is bad for you. It's one of the few vegetable oils to contain high levels of saturated fat. That's what's so appealing about it, if you're a food manufacturer. It's cheap and it's easy to handle, being solid (or semi solid) at room temperature. But saturated fat is bad for your heart. Yet another reason to avoid the stuff, as if the orangutans weren't reason enough.

What can I do?

VeggieGlobal, the animal and environmental website, says

If you were making conscious efforts to buy "dolphin friendly" tins of tuna, then it's now time to think twice before buying foods or cosmetics containing palm oil

But if it is so ubiquitous, how can you do that? Even reading the ingredients label isn't a sure-fire way to tell if a product contains palm oil, as it is often listed just as "vegetable oil".

But there is good news. In July this year, Asda announced that it would not sell products containing palm oil unless the suppliers could prove that it comes from sustainably-run plantations. They have banned all palm oil from Borneo and Sumatra, the worst affected regions, and hopes to have eliminated all unsustainable palm oil from 500 products within a year. Meanwhile The Body Shop has established its own sustainable organic supplier in Colombia.

So here's what you can do:

  1. You can shop at Asda and the Body Shop, or you can write to your usual retailers and ask them why they aren't banning unsustainable palm oil as well

  2. You can write to your member of parliament and tell her about your concerns over palm oil

  3. You can visit the Palm Oil Action website and learn more about the issue (and see beautiful pictures of orangutans)

  4. Find 4 products containing palm oil or vegetable oil and write to the manufacturer

  5. Print out 5 copies of the Palm Oil Action brochure and hand them out to your friends, or better still forward it by email and save a tree.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Compost Quandrary

I received an email from a flat-dwelling reader with a compost problem:

I had started composting all my fruit and veg scraps but hubby has put a stop to this as I had left the bin a bit too long before taking it to compost on the lottie and I got a few midgey flies round it so now he says it's filthy, unhygenic etc so I can only really take things from time to time (like make a big veg peeling session and then run down the lottie with a bagful). But I would like to continue in this vein - should I change the way I store it? I would empty the bin once or twice a week so really it needs to be airtight. Can you suggest anything??
It's a tough one. Flies in your house are gross I agree, and I sympathise with your husband's reaction. I do have a few suggestions, though.

  1. You could get a wormery. I don't have one myself but lots of people swear by them. Basically the whole composting unit lives in the kitchen, with the worms and everything. Make sure you get a junior or indoor wormery, as the normal ones are for outdoor use and are too big for a typical flat. They're made of opaque plastic so you don't get to see the little wigglers unless you take the lid off and go poking around inside. You put the scraps on top and the wormies turn it into compost. You also get to collect the worm pee which is fabulous plant food. There's no flies, no smell, and no need to trudge down to the allotment. Although if your husband isn't keen on flies he might freak out at the thought of worms in the kitchen. The worms shouldn't escape under normal circumstances, though.
  2. There's a product called a Kitchen Caddy for collecting compostable scraps which has an airtight lid to keep out flies, and a chacoal filter to eliminate smells. Again, I haven't tested it myself but it sounds good, doesn't it? It's available at

  3. You could store your scraps in the freezer instead of in a bin. Then once a week (or whatever) carry the solid lump down to your lottie and chuck it on. It will melt and compost down soon enough, but whilst it's in your home there will be no flies. Just make sure you label the container well, and don't mistake it for frozen dinner leftovers!
I hope one of these solves your problem. Maybe Bean Sprouts readers can think of some other solutions.

Food For Free Review

I really enjoyed reading Richard Mabey's Food For Free whilst curled up in my favourite armchair. It is organised season-by-season so you can see what is potentially available at any time of year. I flicked straight to the "autumn" section to see what is available now, although some things are available for more than one season - dandelions, for example, and some kinds of mushrooms. Other plants offer different things at different times of year. Elder trees, for example, are listed under Spring, because the flowers can be picked then, but not under Summer when the berries ripen.

There are lots of full colour photos, but many of them are not large enough or clear enough to allow you to identify the plant (or fungus etc.) if you are not already familiar with it. It should show you clear illustrations of the leaves, the flowers and the fruit. I don't think it would be a very practical field guide, but I don't think it is trying to be - it is too large a book anyway. So you'll still need a fungus field guide, a tree guide and a wildflower/plant field guide to figure out exactly what to pick.

Food for Free contains some recipes, but it's not really a cookery book either. For one thing, I wouldn't want to splash ingredients or scribble recipe adjustments on its lovely pages (I tend to abuse my recipe books somewhat) and there is no separate recipe index. It doesn't seem to want to open flat either, an essential quality in a cookbook if you ask me.

I sound like I'm coming down quite hard on it, but I don't mean to. The book has many great features. For example, it is very extensive, covering not only the widespread and bountiful forage such as dandelion leaves and blackberries, but also rare things such as truffles and early purple orchids.

I notice that there is a Collins Gem version. I wonder how it differs from the large lavish paperback version I've got? Because I think what's really needed is 3 different books - a field guide to edible wild plants and fungus, a cookbook for them, and an armchair book. This is the armchair version. Now where are the other two?

2007 Growing Season Retrospective

We had big plans for the allotment in 2007. Early in the season we were given part of the plot next door, and I hoped to dig it all over and fill it with three times as many crops as we grew last year.

Sadly, the weather had other plans. Following a deliciously warm and dry spring, Britain had the wettest summer in recorded history. Throughout May, June and July it just rained, heavily, every day. The slugs and snails ate the crops we had already planted. The weeds grew unhindered. And even when the weather broke, we just didn't feel like going down to the allotment.

It wasn't all doom and gloom. The allotment was a patchwork of productive areas interspersed with weeds.
  • The potatoes and onions did well. They got a good start and out-competed the weeds. We got a good harvest and stored lots of spuds and onions in the shed.

  • Garlic was a failure. About three times now I have planted garlic cloves from the greengrocer in various spots. They put up lots of encouraging greenery, but when the leaves go yellow and fall down there are no bulbs underneath. Maybe it's because I'm using varieties grown for food, probably in a hot country whose climate is different from mine. This year I'm planting garlic from the garden centre, specially produced for growing. Wish me luck.

  • The strawberries and soft fruit we planted very early in the season did OK. Some of the raspberry canes didn't take, and I want to plant new ones to replace them, but some did fine. I didn't expect to harvest any fruit in their first season, and what few fruit grew were mostly eaten by birds. Netting will be essential next year.

  • I planted lots of herbs and they've grown wonderfully. They look really nice, and mostly crowd out the weeds. The allotment isn't the best place for herbs - I prefer to have them near the kitchen so I can go out and grab a handful of marjoram or whatever when I'm cooking. I don't know what to do with them now, either. Will they survive the winter? Will I need to plant new ones in spring? Should I cut them back?

  • I managed to keep a few spots clear and grew ruby chard, tomatoes, lettuce and radishes.

  • Beans were a great success - runner beans, broad beans, asparagus peas, french beans, dwarf beans. They grew up through the weeds and cropped well.

  • My peas keeled over and died. I don't think they like the wet. Or maybe snails got them.

  • Three sisters was a qualified success. My sweetcorn didn't grow very tall. Perhaps I used the wrong variety. It cropped OK and tasted wonderful, but it didn't provide much support for the beans. They seemed happy enough sprawling all over the floor instead, but it made harvesting them a pain. The squash seemed happy with the arrangement, though. I might try it again next year with different varieties. A taller variety of sweetcorn and a shorter variety of beans, perhaps.
What about next year? We've got to be really disciplined and get to the allotment more often, whatever the weather. When we've weeded an area, we need to plant something in it straight away. Crops are a great weed suppressant, especially leafy things like potatoes and squash, but bare earth is an invitation to weeds. But to look on the bright side, even in a terrible year as this has been, there's always something. There have been times when I've despaired of the allotment, and yet if you add together everything we've harvested, it's not bad at all. The shed has dozens of bags of spuds and ropes of onions hanging from hooks in the ceiling. I've got 20 gallons of wine fermenting from plants we foraged or grew. I think every meal I've eaten for the last week has been mainly or partly home-grown food. That's not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Crisis at the Big Green Gathering

The Big Green Gathering, the annual green festival, is in financial trouble. Due to changes in their licence conditions, this year's Gathering cost about £120,000 more than usual to put on, leaving the organisation with a deficit rather than a profit.

They need to raise at least £100,000 to stay in business, and are appealing for support. It sounds like a lot of money, but it's only about £10 for everyone who attended this year's Gathering (less than they spent on vegeburgers and trinkets, probably). I've wanted to go to the BGG for years, but couldn't persuade Ed to either miss out on Cropredy or else attend two festivals. I'd be gutted if it went out of business before I managed to go, so I'll be supporting their fundraising effort.

If you want to support them too, here's how you can do it:
  • Become a BGG shareholder. Shares are available at £40, only one share may be held per person. Details of how to do that are on the BGG Crisis website. If you want to become a shareholder, you can choose to have your application held until after the AGM, so that your cheque would only be cashed if enough money was raised to save the festival.
  • Send a cheque made out to BGG Rescue Fund to to BGG, 10 St Johns Sq., Glastonbury BA6 9LJ, or donate online at the donations page. Cheques are better for two reasons: online donations have a hefty processing fee and 30-day delay, and also BGG will hold all cheques and only bank them when they are sure they have raised enough funds to save the festival.

Gardening Gadget

I treated myself to a new gardening gadget from the garden centre. It's a sort of swiss army knife for gardeners, with a pair of secateurs, a corkscrew (I like the thinking behind this), and a selection of extremely blunt knives. A few minutes with a knife sharpener sorted that out.

I think it will be useful on the allotment - as long as I remember to take it with me

Autumn Haiku

Not just any 17-syllable phrase is a haiku. Not even poetic sentiments that break 5-7-5 are necessarily haikus. I'm told that the essence of haiku is the "haiku moment" - a moment where time seems to stand still in perfect consciousness of the instant, expressed in the most concise poetic form possible.

I've experienced moments like that. For example, last night Sam and I went out to see the harvest moon. Walking up the road towards the open field, Sam was scared of the dark, so I picked him up and carried him in my arms. When we saw the moon, it was so bright, it cast our shadows on the ground. We both just stood there and watched it for a while.

I'm a wordy, rambling person (I'm sure you've noticed) and I wouldn't dare try to express such a moment as a haiku. But I liked this one, written over 200 years ago by a Japanese gentleman-poet:
Such a moon -
Even the thief
pauses to sing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ginger - Update

I've been feeding Ginger every day with a teaspoonful of ground ginger and a teaspoonful of white sugar. When I remove her teatowel she looks like a puddle of clear liquid, with some pale brown sediment on the bottom and a few brownish bubbles on top. After I've fed her and given her a stir, she looks more evenly golden-brown. Then half an hour or so later, she is a lively mass of froth and bubbles. You can see by the tide-mark on the side of her bowl how big she grows at her largest. Then she settles back down to quiescence again.

I'm very fond of her and I'm looking forward to turning her into ginger beer at the weekend. Meanwhile my researches into ginger beer plants have turned up some very surprising and exciting findings. More on that later.

Shaggy Ink Cap

I've never picked wild mushrooms before, but I have often noticed distinctive mushrooms on the field at the end of the road. I looked them up and learned that they are shaggy ink-cap mushrooms. They're good to eat, and almost impossible to mistake for anything else. I promised myself that when I saw them again, I'd try them.

I picked one today and had it in an omelette for my lunch. It was tasty - just mushroom-y I suppose. If someone else had cooked it and given it to me, I might never have noticed it wasn't made with ordinary mushrooms from the shop. But knowing I had identified and picked it myself a few hundred yards away (and combined it with eggs from my own chickens and parsley from the garden) it made a more satisfying lunch than your average mushroom omelette.

Harvest Moon

It's a full moon tonight, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, known as the harvest moon. Full moons always rise very close to sunset (the moon is full because it's opposite the sun, you see). For these few nights there is no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise. The moonlight sort of extends the day, granting farmers extra time to bring in their crops, hence the name.

The harvest moon also appears larger and yellower than usual. This is because you tend to view it when it is close to the horizon. Because you are looking at it through a great thickness of atmosphere, differential scattering makes it look yellower or redder than normal. If you take a photograph of it, the change in colour will show up on the photo so this is a real effect even though the actual moon has not changed colour.

The apparent increase in size is just an illusion, though. If you measure the size of the moon, it is no different than at other times. But our minds perceive objects close to the horizon as being larger than objects higher in the sky. Even though I know it's just an illusion, it's still a very convincing one, and the harvest moon is a stunning sight. I hope we get clear skies tonight so I can go out from about 7pm and look at it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Home-Grown Soup

It's autumn. So let's do this thing properly. Lunch today - home-made soup. Ingredients - squash and home-grown sweetcorn from the allotment, with chives from the back garden. Plenty of bread and butter. Cup of tea. Comfort food? Hell, yeah.

Weed of the Week - Dock

Dock is a common weed all over the place. I was familiar with it when I was a child, because it is the best remedy for nettle stings. You have to crush the dock leaf in your hands and apply the juice to the sting. It really does bring relief.

They're a pain in the veg patch, because they're a mite difficult to get rid of. Not as bad as bindweed, ground elder or couch grass, but a nuisance nonetheless. They form very long deep roots, and you can find yourself making an enormous hole as you strive to find the bottom of a big specimen. The roots are tough when they're thick, but as you dig deeper they are rather brittle when they become thinner. They tend to snap if you pull them, but if you leave the bottom in the ground it can regrow.

With their big broad leaves they're very easy to eradicate with weedkiller, but I don't like using poisons on my veg patch, so I just dig the buggers up. When they regrow I dig 'em up again. Nothing likes having its head repeatedly pulled off and they give up and die eventually. It's labour intensive, but I prefer it to nuking the whole plot with Roundup.

Apart from relieving nettle stings, and weed tea, I know of no use for them. You can't eat them, you can't smoke them, you can't make baskets out of them, you can't dry their roots, grind them up, and use them as a substitute for washing soda. Goats would probably eat them, but that doesn't make them special in any way. Goats will eat bicycle tyres.

Down with 'em, that's what I say. Docks - a useless and tiresome weed. Does anyone have anything to say in their defence?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Last of the Summer Squash

We went to the allotment in shifts yesterday, because somebody had to stay home with Sam at all times. He's still spotty with chickenpox, but he doesn't feel ill and is enjoying his week off school.

Ed went first and dug up loads of weeds. Then I went and raked the soil and planted garlic and onion sets.

I also picked the last of the summer squash. I expect more frost at some point, so we need to get all the crops in quickly before that happens. I also picked our sweetcorn. My word, home-grown sweetcorn is delicious. It's not just sweet, it's actually sugary. You can't imagine if you've never had it. The stuff from the shops bears no comparison.

We'll certainly plant that again next year. But for now we're planting onions and winter cabbage, and in a month or so we'll put some broad beans in. What else can you plant at this time of year? Some kind of green manure, perhaps?

Manor Gardens Allotments Update

Yesterday was the scheduled date for the demolition of the Manor Gardens Allotments. If you remember, the 100-year-old allotments are close to the site of the 2012 Olympics, and will be demolished to make way for a path which will be used for 4 weeks.

A rally was held to mark the occasion. Protesters brought wreaths and flowers to lay at the allotment gates, "for all that's being lost".

Allotmenteers were joined by local residents and other people displaced by the Olympics outside the town hall. They then marched to the Olympic Gates to demonstrate their "disquiet, and distrust of the promised benefits the Olympics are claimed to bring".

What upsets me is the profound lack of understanding about gardening and growing things displayed by the Olympic committee and the various courts and authorities who have failed to prevent this. It's not good enough to just give them a different site. It's not good enough to say they'll be allowed back to their old site after the games. When you garden a plot of land you improve it. You dig it and incorporate manure, lime, sand and so on to improve the drainage and fertility. You work to eradicate resident pests and perennial weeds. You plant perennial plants such as rhubarb, asparagus and soft fruit bushes which take time to establish but which will be productive for many years. You establish a crop rotation system in which your nitrogen-hungry brassicas follow your nitrogen-releasing legumes, which in turn follow your ground-breaking and weed-smothering potatoes, which have followed your root vegetables and so on.

You can't just turf people out and say "Look, we've got this other site for you. It's brand new, so it must be better. There are sheds and everything". And you can't just say "We'll build loads of concrete and paths over your old site, but we'll bulldoze them back up again in six years' time and you can have it back. It'll be just the same".

If there had at least been some recognition of what the allotmenteers are losing - if they had been offered significant compensation for example, or if the media who reported the case had shown that they understood what was at stake - perhaps they might have felt less aggrieved. But instead they have been portrayed as a bunch of stick-in-the-mud old fogeys, standing stubbornly in the way of progress.

It seems to me that this battle has been something very primal and basic. People who work an area of land to produce their own food are fighting against the invasion and loss of their land. It's a noble cause, and I am sad that they have lost. I am even sadder that they have been so profoundly misunderstood and misrepresented.

From BBC News and the Lifeisland website.

Ginger Beer Plant

Meet Ginger, the ginger beer plant.

We made her by adding half an ounce of baking yeast to 3/4 pint of warm water, 2 tsps sugar and 2 tsps ground ginger in a roomy bowl. Then we covered her with a clean cloth. See how much she had grown half an hour later.

We'll feed her every day for a week with a teaspoonful of sugar and a teaspoonful of ground ginger, and keep her warm and covered.

After a week, we'll strain her and add the liquid to 24oz of sugar, 2 pints of water and the juice of 2 lemons. Then we'll add 5 more pints of water and mix well. Then we'll bottle her in clean screw top bottles and store her in a cool place.

I'm pretty sure this was mum's ginger beer technique. I got it from Marguerite Patten's book 500 Recipes for Home-Made Wines and Drinks, which mum had. And I remember helping mum make and feed her ginger beer plants. The "beer" is only weakly alcoholic - the main point of the yeast is to make it fizzy and extract the flavour, not to make alcohol - so this drink is perfectly suitable for children. I think there's a way of dividing the plant at the end so you make a batch of ginger beer and keep the plant going for the next batch. I need to do a bit of research and find out how to do that, because it isn't mentioned in the book.

I'll keep you posted about Ginger's progress. Watch this space.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Autumn Equinox

Today is the autumn equinox (in the Northern hemisphere), the point of balance between midsummer and midwinter. Day and night are 12 hours long today, that's what "equinox" means (in fact it's more complicated than that because the sun is not a single point and the earth's orbit is not a perfect circle). But from now on the days in the Northern hemisphere get shorter and shorter, and the nights get longer. The growing season is rapidly coming to a close and winter is approaching.

I feel a sense of descent and closing. I feel connected to the seasons, although that hasn't always been true. At other times of my life I have felt very disconnected from them, for example when I was living in a city, and drove to work every day. House to car, car to work, work to car, car to house. Indoor shopping centres at the weekend. Pubs or cinemas in the evening. I didn't notice when the first blackberries ripened or when the swallows returned in spring. But last Friday morning a skein of geese flew overhead as I dropped the kids off at school. I first heard their loud calling, and I stopped to watch them as they passed.

Green Cleaning - Results

Steph tested the green cleaning tips I suggested a few days ago. Here's what she found:
It worked better than I expected, and at least as well as I'd expect any off the shelf abrasive cleaner to work. The scrubbing with the lemon and sea salt was very satisfying, and I left the sink covered in the juice for a couple of hours then rinsed it with water. There's still some
ingrained discolouration deep in the pitted plastic, so after tonight's load of washing up, I'll have another go with the lemon & salt & leave it overnight.
The lemony smell was a nice change to Mr Muscle, and far far better than bleach which I'd usually use.

Thanks, now I'm a convert and I'll be picking your brains for more info in the future.

Cartoon from Click on the picture to enlarge.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rhubarb Wine

The rhubarb plants on the allotment grow across the path, so when we visit we pull any stalks that are obstructing the way. Last time I went I pulled 15lb of rhubarb (about 7kg. I know - it sounds like a lot to me, too), which is enough to make 5 gallons of rhubarb wine.

The first stage of making any wine is to extract the flavour from the main ingredient. You can squeeze the juice directly from grapes, oranges etc. But some other ingredients need different treatment, often by boiling in water then straining. Rhubarb is a bit unusual - you chop it up then cover with sugar. The sugar sucks the juice out of the rhubarb and dissolves, then you strain off the syrup, dilute it with water and ferment that. I didn't believe it either, but I had a go, and it worked just as it said in the book.

More About Green Cleaning

The internet has lots of pages of green cleaning tips, but some of them are confused and many of them don't work. For example, some writers get mixed up between baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Other recipes often recommend that you mix vinegar with bicarb to make a sooper-dooper cleaning agent. Actually that would make a lot of impressive looking bubbles but result in something with approximately the cleaning power of salt water. A basic understanding of chemistry (or baking) would help clear some of this up.

The golden rule is alkali neutralises acid, and vice versa.
  • Bicarbonate of soda is a powdered alkali. It's great for cleaning acidic stains. If you mix it with a little water to make a paste, it makes a very gentle scourer. Because the powder is very fine, it won't scratch like salt can.
  • Vinegar is a solution of acid. It's good for cleaning alkali stains, and will dissolve greasy stains. I use it in a plant mister for cleaning surfaces, glass etc.
  • If you add bicarb to vinegar the alkali neutralises the acid. A lot of carbon dioxide gas is released, and when the reaction is over you are left with a neutral liquid. Well, you probably had a bit too much of one or the other, so it will be a little bit acid or a little bit alkali - but there's no way of knowing which unless you measure precisely and understand the chemistry. Either way, the result has very little cleaning power. If a website or a book advises you to mix bicarb and vinegar, then the writer hasn't tested their own tips. I'd disregard everything else they say.
  • Baking powder is a mixture of powdered bicarb and powdered tartaric acid. When dry, nothing happens, but mix them with liquid (e.g. in a cake batter) and they react. Carbon dioxide gas is released - that's what makes your cake rise. The acid neutralises the alkali. Baking powder is no use as a cleaning agent, but it does make great cakes. Again, anyone who recommends you use baking powder as a cleaning agent is confused. Be sceptical about taking their advice.

So that's the lowdown on bicarb and vinegar. They're very useful cleaning agents in their own right, but don't mix them unless you want to make a sink-top volcano for your 5-year-old to play with.

What other options are there for green cleaning?

  • Soap is made by reacting a strong alkali with fat or oil. I make soap at home by reacting lye (sodium hydroxide - drain cleaner) with sunflower oil, coconut oil, olive oil etc. A lot of soap nowadays is made with palm oil, and there are all sorts of environmental problems with palm oil production, but that's a story for another day. The point is that soap is pretty environmentally benign and is a great cleaner. After all, it's what your granny used in the days before Cillit Bang.
  • Hot water is a great asset to cleaning. Use rubber gloves and very hot water, a bit of soap and you can clean most things.
  • Lemon juice is acidic and also a natural bleach, especially in combination with sunlight. But a commenter has pointed out that lemons in Britain have travelled a lot of food miles.

If all the cleaning products you owned were soap, vinegar, bicarb and a pair or rubber gloves, you could still keep your home as clean as you like.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Green Cleaning

Steph phoned me with a cleaning problem - she wanted to know how to remove stains from her plastic kitchen sink without using harmful cleaning chemicals. I suggested that she cut a lemon in half, dip the cut half in salt and use it to scour the stain. The salt has a gentle scrubbing action and the lemon juice ought to bleach the stain away. It might take a few repetitions, depending on how bad the stain is, but it should have some effect.

The trouble is now I have a craving for margueritas.

So Steph, tell us - did it work?

New Books

I got two books through the post yesterday. One was Richard Mabey's "Food For Free" which lots of people have been telling me I must get. Thanks to my sister, Steph, for sending me that one.

The other was a copy of the now out-of-print Marguerite Patten book "500 Recipes Home-Made Wines and Drinks". I remember mum had this, and I suspect it is the source of her ginger beer recipe, so I'm going to give it a try.

The book is delightfully 1970s, with tips on throwing the perfect cocktail party (apparently Campari is becoming increasingly popular), and suggestions for dinner parties (she recomends serving creme de menthe, Drambuie or cherry brandy with after-dinner coffee). But it also has recipes for home-made wines, cider, perry, beer and mead. It also has instructions for a variety of liqueurs (like sloe gin), cordials and fruit syrups, and mulled drinks. I don't really need the cocktail recipes - I have survived this long without being able to mix the perfect Singapore sling - but there is plenty more in here I'd like to try.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Exploding Beer Bottles

One of the bottles of home-made beer exploded in the kitchen, and made a hell of a mess. I hope it was just a one-off. Maybe we did something wrong (added too much sugar at the bottling stage, for example) which will cause more of them to go. I'm moving them out of the kitchen and into the shed, anyway.


Porridge with a dollop of home-made jam. It's little things like this that make up the good life. If the jam wasn't home-made, it wouldn't be the same.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Learning to Sew

Eleanor wanted to learn to sew on the sewing machine, so I taught her the same way I learned - without any thread, following lines drawn onto paper. As she became more accurate following straight lines, I drew a square and taught her how to stop, change direction, and start again. When she had mastered that, I drew a spiral and taught her how to pilot the paper through the machine following the curve. Mostly it's about having the confidence to go slow, and looking at what's coming up, not what's happening directly below the needle. A lot like driving a car, come to think of it.

Sam wanted to try too, and he picked it up almost as quickly as Ellie did. I watched them all closely and they kept their fingers out of the way of the needle, so don't worry. I told them how my sister, Steph, put the needle of mum's old Singer machine through her finger when she was just a toddler, by climbing up on the treadle with her fingers on the needleplate. I think I gave them a healthy respect for a machine that can drive a needle through six layers of denim.

They can start sewing fabric next. I reckon they could make a Morsbag.

New Baby in the Sustainable Blogosphere

Ally, author of Ducking For Apples, had a baby boy called Leo Thomas. Leo was born at 4.45 a.m. yesterday, after 36 hours of labour (phew!). He weighed a very respectable 8lb 7.5oz, and he and mum are doing well.

Congratulations Ally and B!

Guerilla Gardening Granny

A 79-year-old woman in Wiltshire has been allowed to continue tending the flower bed in a traffic island, on condition she wears a reflective jacket.

An official from Wiltshire county council spotted Mrs June Turnbull tending the plot in August, and she was ordered to stop unless she complied with health and safety rules. These would have involved wearing high visibility clothing, putting up signs, and working with a partner.

Mrs Turnbull said:
I was very angry, I mean it seems so petty bothering with what I do here. There's just no point.

But now the council has relented, and she is allowed to continue improving the flower bed she has tended for six years.

Go granny! Or should I say "Grow, granny!"

From BBC News


Sam has chickenpox. Tom had it a few years ago, and had to miss Cropredy. I can't remember if Eleanor has had it. I don't think she has.

Ed and I have already had it. I got it when I was 18 and started an epidemic - I gave it to Ed, Steph, Steph's boyfriend and who knows who else. Chickenpox is really horrible when you're an adult. I had a high fever with hallucinations. Ed collapsed in a train station and everyone stepped over him assuming he was a drunk. It's much better to get it when you're young when the symptoms are less severe and you get a week off school, with your mum taking care of you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Recycled

Just over half way through the month and the Carry A Bag challenge poll has already far outstripped all previous polls. A whopping 66 people have voted so far in the poll, with about 3/4 saying they already used reusable bags wherever they go, and 1/4 pledging to do so in future. One person claims to produce all their own food and never uses shopping bags at all. It's all good, and I'm so pleased at the response.

I've told you ten compelling reasons to ditch the plastic carrier bags. But what are you going to do with all the bags you have collected already, stuffing up that cupboard in your kitchen. You know the one! Well Cindy at My Recycled has dozens of patterns for crocheted bags made of cut-up old plastic bags. I've made something similar myself, but Cindy is a far more talented designer than I am, and her bags are much cooler.

She also has patterns for other items such as Barbie clothes and pan scrubbers, and patterns using other recycled "yarn", including the tape from old VCR and audio cassettes. As well as practical grocery bags she also has patterns for elegant little evening bags (honestly!), coin purses, funky shoulder bags and other items such as peg bags and water bottle holders. And if you don't feel able to make the items yourself (she gives full instructions for them all), you can buy the items from her at very reasonable prices.

A Touch of Frost

I went to the allotment this morning to drop off some paving slabs I scrounged, and I saw that there had been frost overnight. It seemed to be patchy - my squash was untouched, which is good because they're very sensitive to frost and deflate like popped balloons when the temperature drops below zero. But the grass was still rimed when I got there at about half past nine, and the sage in my herb patch looked like it had been dipped in egg white and caster sugar. I kicked myself for not bringing my camera with me.

I'll go later and remove all the remaining fruits from the squash, whatever size they are. I'll get all the runner beans, too, and any lettuce. And I urgently need to look at my bees, and make sure they'll be OK during the winter.

Gottle of Geer

Ed and I bottled the beer we made from a kit last weekend. It's quite a lengthy process - you have to wash and sterilise 50 or so bottles, carefully tip a spoonful of sugar into each one, fill it with beer using a siphon, and the put the metal crown cap on. Our crown capper is old and seized up, which made the process even tougher than it needed to be.

Ed says I should go back to the home brew shop and buy a pressure barrel because it's a lot less bother. Oh, and another beer kit.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Friends of the Earth Competition

Friends of the Earth are running a competition to win £150 worth of books from their online bookshop. They have introduced a new feature where visitors can review the books, similar to Amazon's customer review system. Anyone who writes a review between now and the end of October will be entered into a prize draw.

There are more details on the FoE website. I notice they're selling Food for Free which some Bean Sprouts readers have recommended. I feel a book shopping spree coming on.

(Renewable) Power to the People

Growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s I was convinced that Margaret Thatcher was the sole cause of all ills, and that a Labour government would do a lot of good. Tony Blair severely disillusioned me about party politics. I started to believe that whoever gets elected, they just end up being the government anyway, doing all the same things that all the other governments do - go to war, blame the poor, help the rich get richer, help the powerful stay powerful, and feather their own nests in readiness for the day when the people grow sick of them and elect a different bunch, who will go on to behave exactly the same as the old lot.

But I've got a soft spot for the Liberal Democrats. For a while now they've been the most left-wing of the three mainstream parties. And now they also seem to be becoming the greenest. At the party conference in Brighton today they will vote on a motion calling for 30% of the UK's electricity to be produced from clean, non-carbon-emitting sources by 2020 - rising to 100% by 2050. The party leader Sir Menzies Campbell said

We should be working towards a carbon-neutral Britain by 2050. We should be working towards the elimination of petrol-driven motor cars.

That's radical stuff, and I was astonished to hear it coming from a mainstream party leader on BBC1 Breakfast. He doesn't mean nuclear power either, although I think there is going to be a heated debate about that, both in Brighton and in the rest of the country in the coming few years.

Cameron loves talking about climate change as well. How long before number 10 starts setting deadlines for a carbon-neutral Britain, and the elimination of petrol-fueled cars?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Fruits of the Hedgerow

I picked up Charlotte Popescu's
"Fruits of the Hedgerow" in my local garden centre, which was kind of ironic. Our allotment harvest has been poor this year. The best harvest has been hedgerow forage.

The book covers 17 different British wild fruits, nuts and seeds. Each variety has a short description and then a plethora of recipes such as quince muffins, lemon and elderflower syllabub and hazelnut ice cream. I was particularly attracted by the recipes for rowanberries and haws, which grow profusely near me but which I've never gathered before because I didn't know how to use them.

There are no illustrations in the book, and this is a serious drawback. What does a medlar look like anyway? Even in black and white, a line drawing of the tree/bush, of the fruit and leaves, would have been invaluable. But this book assumes that you can already identify the fruits, you just need some recipes for them.

I'm looking forward to trying some of the recipes in this book, if I can tear myself away from just using them to make wine.

10 Things you Never Knew Could Be Recycled

If you recycle tin cans and drinks cans, did you know you can also recycle:
  • Foil milk bottle lids

  • Pie tins from ready meals

  • Metal dishes from takeaway food

  • Foil lids of yogurt pots

  • Used aluminium foil (try to wash and reuse it a few times first)

  • Metal lids of jam jars

  • Metal bottle caps

  • Paint tins

  • Spray cans e.g WD40, hairspray etc

  • The metal foil from cigarette and tobacco packaging
But you can't recycle shiny plastic like crisp packets, even though it may look like foil. The way to test whether it's recyclable foil or non-recyclable plastic is to scrunch it in your hand. If it stays scrunched, it's foil. If it springs back, it's plastic.

Cartoon from Click on the picture to enlarge.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Piece of Cake

I set a competition on Thursday, asking "How can you cut an apple pie into eight pieces with three straight cuts?". The answer was:

Cut the pie in half with one vertical cut through the centre (that is, how you would normally cut a cake in two). Then cut it into four with a further vertical cut through the centre, at right angles to the first (again, all normal so far). Then stack two pieces on top of the other two, and make one further vertical cut through all four pieces, making eight pieces.

Some people offered a slightly different solution, cutting the pie horizontally after cutting it in four. I don't think I'd be pleased to get a piece of apple pie with no crunchy piecrust on top. But I didn't specify "eight equally appetizing pieces" so I accepted this solution.

There were seven correct answers in all, and the winner (pulled out of a hat this morning by Eleanor) was Matt Shacklady of St. Helens. Congratulations, Matt. I gave the books to your mum and sister as as I passed through St Helens today. They seemed really nice. Say "hi" to them for me.

Asparagus Peas

Peas didn't do well this year. The plants just fell over and died. I think their root systems must be sensitive to waterlogging. On the other hand my asparagus peas did well. Are they more flood resistant? Did I just happen to plant them in a well-drained spot? Who knows?

So what are asparagus peas anyway? They're one of those vegetables you never see in the shops. They're an exclusive privilege of vegetable growers, like cardoons and tomatillos. They must be closely related to peas as they look and behave much the same. But when the pretty flowers set, they form a long cylindrical pod with four weird-looking wings.
You steam them whole, a bit like mange-tout. The taste is delicious and delicate. Some people say it resembles asparagus, but I'm not sure about that. It's jolly nice, anyway. You have to pick them when they are only tiny, because otherwise they become inedibly tough and chewy. Sadly I learned that the hard way, after flinging a bunch of them into a mixed bean stew. The whole stew had to be composted. It tasted really good, too, apart from the woody asparagus peas.
I think I'll grow these again, if only as an insurance policy against floods wiping out my peas. But I'll remember to pick them more often.