Monday, December 31, 2007

Learning to Podcast

Let's make it an official New Year resolution: I will produce a monthly Bean Sprouts podcast throughout 2008. I've already started getting to grips with the technological side - I've recorded myself reciting very silly poetry into my laptop via a microphone, and played it back on my iPod. But I also want to learn about what makes a really good podcast. One that will add a new dimension for regular Bean Sprouts readers, and hopefully attract scads of new readers.

I listen regularly to two green podcasts: Wiggly Wigglers' and Treehugger's. And I use podcasts to listen to radio programmes after they have aired. But I can't say I'm really an expert who has spent hours listening to all kinds of podcasts. I'd like to correct that, and I need your help.

So what are your favourite podcasts, green or otherwise? And why?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Review: Guerrilla Gardening

Guerrilla Gardening by David TraceyGood old Santa. He brought me a pile of books about gardening and ecology. Actually, I drove one of his "little helpers" to Liverpool, led him into my favourite radical bookshop, pointed him to the ecology shelves and said "Anything from that section". You see, receiving crap gifts is wasteful to the environment, and you know how I hate waste, so I prefer to leave nothing to chance.

The first book I read from the pile was "Guerrilla Gardening" by David Tracey. It's about how to garden on land that isn't yours. How to beautify those horrid patches of wasteland that attract litter and junkies and illegally-dumped household items. You might throw a seed grenade over a wall, you might tie containers filled with growing salad greens to a chain link fence, or drop a few runner bean seeds at the foot of every utility pole, or even break through the tarmac with a road drill and plant a tree.

I thought this would be a good book just from the title, but it turned out to be even better than I expected. Tracey really is focused on beautifying the neighbourhood and giving it back to the neighbours. He's not just out to "stick it to the Man". So there are sections on how to get permission from the landowner, and how to get support and maybe even funding from City Hall, as well as advice on when it is better to seek forgiveness than permission. There are ideas for long-term projects where a group of people plant a garden and tend it regularly, as well as "hit and run" projects like the seed grenade idea. I really loved the idea of cutting a slogan out of a bedsheet, then using the bedsheet as a stencil by spreading it over a lawn in front of e.g. some corporate offices, and sprinkling organic fertiliser over the gaps. Over time the grass should grow thicker and greener in those areas and spell out your message in an environmentally-friendly but hard-to erase way.

The book is written with a light touch, filled with witty jokes and short quotes. I often paused to read a little bit out to Ed or my dad because I thought they'd smile. Things like "Resistance is Fertile" (slogan on a protest placard), "Please sit on the grass" (sign on a guerrilla-planted lawn), and "Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks" (quote attributed to Ian Hamilton Finlay). But it's no coffee-table book, filled with sound-bites and devoid of content. It's a practical how-to book which tells you the best way to plant a tree as well as suggesting some helpful things to say if you get stopped by the police. But primarily it's an inspiring book. I'm very keen to give some of these ideas a try, and I've signed up with Guerrilla to try to make contact with like-minded people in my area.

The Story of Stuff

I just watched a 20-minute online video called The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. It's part-animated (by the same people who created The Meatrix) and presented by Annie Leonard (an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues). The video describes the journey of the stuff we buy, from the extraction of materials to the incineration of garbage. But it puts the people in the picture all the way through, asking "How are people affected by this process?" Not only the people in the developing world whose natural resources the affluent West is pillaging, but also we Westerners. Does this process make us happier or are we enslaved by it as well?

And finally, it presents alternatives to the work/watch TV/shop treadmill, which allow us to have more fun as well be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It's a great example of the new wave of environmental activism. It's positive, not gloomy. It's entertaining, but fact-based. It makes smart use of the Internet and viral marketing (no-one asked me to write this piece, I just liked the video so much I wanted to share it with you).

I tried to watch it last week but when I realised it was 20 minutes long I just didn't have the time right then. So I saved it to my favourites folder, and one leisurely Sunday morning I got myself a cup of coffee and settled down to watch it. I recommend you do the same. Save the link and watch it when you've got 20 minutes to kill. It's just as entertaining as "I'm Strictly a Celebrity's Big Brother, Joseph" but far more worthwhile.

Go to: The Story of Stuff

(Cartoon below by Climate Cartoons. Click on the panel to view the whole strip.)

Climate Cartoons Imagine My Surprise

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Plans for 2008

Eleanor playing violinAs 2007 draws to a close, what are our plans for 2008?

1. I've signed up for a 9-week beekeeping course run by my local beekeeping association. I'm hoping to supplement what I learned on the 2-day intensive course I attended last spring. Maybe I'll even get a honey harvest from my bees, unlike 2007.

2. We now have a full allotment plot. With any luck the weather in 2008 will be warmer and drier than in 2007, and we can raise a fabulous harvest. Ed wants to grow giant pumpkins on our new section of plot.

3. We've discussed going on holiday to Cornwall this summer. We went down there in 1999 to see the solar eclipse and had a wonderful time. We'd like to take Ed's telescope and view the stars without the light pollution we have here. I want to visit the Eden Centre. Can any Bean Sprouts readers recommend other places to visit and things to do in Cornwall?

4. I'd like to learn a new craft. I have books about hand-made paper and hand-made books. That sounds like a lot of fun.

5. I want to add a regular podcast to this blog. It would be a 20ish minute-long MP3 you could download and listen to at your computer or on your iPod. It would be about the same topics I write about - fruit and vegetable growing, beekeeping, poultry, sustainable living etc. And I'd include interviews with interesting and knowledgeable people. I hope to produce one a month, and see if it is popular.

That's it for plans. I have shedloads of vague ideas (I'd like to mill my own wheat and make a loaf of bread absolutely from scratch) and grand ambitions (I'd like to buy or rent a plot of land and keep some livestock. Goats perhaps, or pigs). And I'm sure lots of interesting things will happen in 2008 that aren't planned or foreseen. But for fixed plans, that's my lot.

What are your plans for 2008?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Greek Yogurt Problems

total greek yogurtSomeone left an anonymous comment on How to Make Greek Yogurt.

Anonymous said...
My husband has been making me yogurt, and smoothies from it, for years. During my year of cancer treatment, there were times it was all I could manage.I have a recent problem, though, and hoping someone can help. I recently had some Greek yogurt from a store, and he tried to make a batch of homemade using the Fage. Everything else was the same, but it didn't "yog," as we say. Any suggestions ?I also wonder if there's a strict definition of Greek yogurt. I've read that they strain out the whey, but I've done that with my yogurt, and it doesn't have the same mouth-feel. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of info on the labels, so I'm left wondering about things like "what animal did this milk come from - cow, sheep, goat ?"Any info welcome.

Anonymous - if your yogurt didn't "yog" there are several possible causes which I outline in the article. Maybe your milk was too hot when you added the starter, or maybe it wasn't warm enough, or perhaps you didn't leave it long enough. But if you are an experienced "yogger" it is more likely that your starter culture wasn't live, or active enough, to get your milk going. You said you used Fage - they manufacture Total Greek Yogurt, the most popular Greek yogurt in the UK. I found several answers to your questions from their website. It says:
TOTAL Greek Yoghurt is made from fresh cows’ milk, cream and live active yoghurt culture

So if you used Total yogurt then you can rule out sheeps' milk etc. Do you use full fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed milk for your home yogurt making? They can all be used, but it makes a lot of difference to the finished product. You might also try adding some cream to your milk to try to replicate the Total mouth-feel. And finally you could play around with the exact amount of straining to get the result you prefer. If you don't strain long enough your yogurt will be rather thinner than if you strained for longer. Strain too long and you're on your way you a sort of cream cheese, which might not be to your taste. I like to strain my yogurt through muslin for around 2 hours.

The website also says:
TOTAL Greek Yoghurt is made with live active cultures.

That means it can be used as a yogurt starter. But still, the starter could have been the cause of your yogging failure if it wasn't fresh enough. I always get the best results with spanking fresh yogurt (read the "best before label", don't just assume that if you bought it from the store yesterday it must be fresh), and I sometimes get failures from using my own yogurt as a starter if I leave it too long between making batches.

As far as I know there is nothing special about the microorganisms in Greek yogurt. It is the process that makes it different from regular yogurt. You can make Greek yogurt using any live yogurt. I can't find anything on the Total website about the particular culture they use.

Good luck, Anonymous, with your quest to make perfect Greek yogurt. I don't know about you, but I always enjoy this kind of journey immensely. The sense of satisfaction when you achieve your goal is indescribable. Please keep in touch and let us know if you learn anything new about yogurt making.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Leftovers? We Call Them Ingredients

quicheI spent a happy day in the kitchen today dealing with the leftovers from Christmas dinner.

Juices and fat from the roast ham - became pease pudding with the addition of a bag of split peas.

Uneaten turkey, gravy - became two things. 1. two helpings of turkey in gravy (frozen) 2. turkey and caramelised onion flan (frozen)

Uneaten ham - was sliced and frozen in 8oz portions, trimmings were stirred into the pease pudding

Turkey carcase - became turkey soup

Leftover veggies, surplus cream, cheese - became vegetable quiche with cheesey pastry (eaten fresh with reheated leftover roast potatoes and sprouts)

Spare bits of cheesey pastry from the quiche and flan - became cheese straws for kids to nibble on

And there is still some sliced ham, turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing in the fridge for sandwiches (omelettes, stir fries etc.), along with loads of leftover pudding, mincemeat, Christmas cake etc.

Dad has gone up to Sunderland to spend New Year with Steph and our North Eastern relatives. He is under strict instructions to bring back some saveloys and stotty cake to go with the pease pudding. And two old uni friends came for a brief visit which made me very happy. Now they know where we are I hope they'll come again.

What are you making with your Christmas leftovers?

Briquette Maker

briquette makerHeather T of Make A Bag asked "could you find a link for the fuel bricks so we can find out more about them?"

It came from the Centre for Alternative Technology. You tear up paper (I'm sure you could also use card) and soak it with water in a bucket for a few hours. Then you slop it into the brickmaker and press on the levers which squeeze most of the water out. It's sturdily made, and I stood on it for maximum squeeze. It felt very solid. I wasn't at all worried it would bend or break.

The "logs" that you make seem to hold together very well. It's amazing how a soggy mass of papiermache turns into something that's definitely a brick. They do come out somewhat wet though , and need to be dried before burning. I don't know yet how long that takes, but it probably depends on the conditions you store them in. And I don't know how you can be sure when they are dry all the way through.

The leaflet that comes with the machine says that one broadsheet newspaper makes a briquette that burns for about an hour. I haven't tried it yet - my briquettes are still drying. I also don't know how easy they are to set alight in the first place.

One thing I can say is that they're easy to make, although tearing up all that paper can be a bit tedious. I'll probably use my shredder next time I do it, but the family were watching Boxing Day TV and I didn't want to run a noisy device. Making the actual bricks is dead easy and quick. I've made three already, and I've only got through about half of all the Christmas wrapping paper, and I haven't even started on all the cardboard boxes.

I'll let you know when I've tested them out, and tell you how well they burned. It seems like a good thing - a human-powered gadget to turn waste paper and card into home-heating fuel. Maybe one day we'll own half an acre of coppiced woodland, and we'll chop our own wood for heating. But until then recycled briquettes may be a good option.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Did You Have A Happy Christmas?

green man pyrograph chopping boardI had a lovely Christmas day. I enjoyed having my dad stay with us, because it gave me someone to cook a roast dinner for (my family would prefer if I served pizza for Christmas dinner). The spuds and sprouts were home-grown. Absolutely everything was made from scratch. I'm particularly proud of my bread sauce recipe, and the gravy was delicious too. The secret is a glug of Madeira. But the mustard-glazed ham (from our local farm-shop which has its own superb butcher) was the star of the meal. Ed had a cheesey suet roll for his vegetarian main course.

I got a big pile of great books which I'll be reviewing as I get through them. The first one I started on after Christmas dinner was "Guerilla Gardening" by David Tracey. Dad gave me one of those devices for making fuel bricks out of waste paper and card, and we already ripped up most of the wrapping paper to make our first brick. There was a solar powered personal radio for listening on the allotment. I'm very excited about a USB microphone I got, because I'd like to add a regular podcast to this blog. Lindsey gave us board games for the family to play together. And Stephanie made hand-painted t-shirts for everyone, and for me a chopping board pyrographed with a green man, based on a photograph of dad. I think that's my favourite present of all, which puts Steph ahead of the game. She gave me my favourite present last year, too.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Long Night's Moon

december full moonI'm writing this on the evening of December 23rd, and as I sit at my computer desk I can look out of the window at the almost full moon, framed in the bare branches of an oak tree, and surrounded by a halo of ice crystals. It's astonishingly beautiful. I'll post this on December 24th, which is a full moon as well as being Christmas Eve .

There's a full moon each month (sometimes there are two), and each month's full moon has its own character. A full moon in December is in the sky a long time, because December nights are the longest of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere). So one of the names of December's full moon is Long Night's Moon. Since tonight's full moon is just two days from the winter solstice, it's about as long as it can possibly be. Other names for this full moon include Winter Moon, Snow Moon, Frost Moon, Oak Moon (appropriate for me) and Moon Before Yule.

Thanks to KerrDeLune of Beyond the Fields We Know for permission to use the image. Like me, she blogs about the cycles of the moon and sun, and the turning of the seasons. She's also a far, far better photographer than I am.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Random Facts Meme

frosty oak leafBeth from Easy Eco Living tagged me with the 7 random facts meme.

The rules: Link to the person who tagged you and post the rules on your blog. Share 7 random or weird things about yourself. Tag 7 people at the end of your post, and include links to their blogs. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

1. I used to work in a residential hospital for people with learning disabilities. If you don't really know what that means I won't be surprised. You might understand better if I used its pre-PC name "lunatic asylum", which is horribly stigmatising for the people who live there, but at least people understand what it means. I was a research assistant in the R&D department there. It was a really good experience and I'm glad I did it, but it convinced me that care in the community is the only humane way forward (shame it's always so desperately underfunded).

2. This New Year's Eve will be the 20th anniversary of my first date with Ed, my husband.

3. I founded the Aberystwyth Student CND Society and was its first Secretary. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War we campaigned actively and organised many petitions, marches, vigils, press events etc. Sadly, the society does not seem to exist anymore.

4. Whilst at Aberystwyth university, the first words of Welsh I learned were "rhyfel" which means "war", "heddwch" which means "peace", and "treth y pen" which means "poll tax". I think that tells you something about how I spent my time at university.

5. I got my first computer in 1981. It was a ZX81 and had 1K of RAM.

6. I've had an email address and access to the internet since 1989, before the World Wide Web was invented.

7. There are huge areas of the Internet that most people don't even know exist. One of my favourites is Usenet, which is the ancestor of web forums. I'm a longstanding resident of the Usenet group uk.rec.sheds

As it's "7 random things" I'm going to choose at random 7 blogs to tag. So I'll tag the last 7 blogs which have referred readers to Bean Sprouts. They are:

Cartoon by Climate Cartoons. Click on the image to read the whole strip.
climate cartoon panel

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Solstice

winter solstice sunToday is the winter solstice, midwinter's day. It's the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. The midday sun will be low in the sky, weak and watery. The northern hemisphere [1] holds its breath to see whether the days will then lengthen, the midday sun will climb higher and higher, the night recede, and spring will come again. Well, we modern scientific types aren't really in any doubt that will happen. But still it's a dark and barren time of year. There's a deep-seated need to light a roaring fire, gather family and friends around, eat, drink and be merry.

[1] Of course in the Southern hemisphere it's midsummer - the longest day and the shortest night. Hope you have a good one.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter Care of Livestock

frosty fence postIt's been very cold lately. For days the thermometer has stuck below zero centigrade, which is unusual here in Cheshire.

It's important to check any animals regularly in weather like this. You need to make sure they can get the shelter they need, and that their water is not frozen. I've had to go out with a kettle and melt the chickens' water a couple of times.

They're still laying really well. Last year they went off the lay when the nights fell earlier, and didn't resume laying properly until the spring. But there's been no drop in egg production at all yet, and midwinter is upon us.

But they occasionally lay eggs in strange places - this morning I found one that had been laid outdoors in the run, and had frozen solid overnight.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Beth Made Yogurt

home made strained yogurt and wheyBeth from the Fake Plastic Fish Tank made her own yogurt. When I posted my list of 10 reasons why everyone should make their own yogurt, I didn't think to include reducing plastic waste - but that's what inspired Beth to make it.

It looks great, Beth. And thanks for the list of uses for whey, as well.

Garcia Effect

brace of pheasants hangingThe last time I ate game, I shortly afterwards came down with an unpleasant and prolonged digestive upset. I know the meal didn't cause my sickness because my sister also ate the same meal and she didn't get ill.

But when I sat down last night to eat a pheasant and mallard casserole I made for my dad (who has come to stay with us over Christmas), I just couldn't eat it. It was delicious, but still I couldn't force even one forkful of it into my mouth.

I know exactly why this is. The Garcia effect is the name given to the urge to avoid any novel food which is followed by symptoms of sickness. Most mammals have this instinct, including humans.

It's most infuriating. Perhaps I'll never be able to eat game again, even though I know it's tasty and perfectly harmless. But millions of years of evolution are overriding my modern conscious brain, and telling me "No!"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dried Sourdough

sanfrancisco sourdough cultureOne thing I haven't yet tried in my sourdough journey has been drying my own sourdough cultures to preserve them. It's a useful security measure in case anything happens to your continuous culture - if you forget to feed it so it dies for example, or if your dog eats it all, or something like that. I'd heard it was pretty easy so I decided to give it a go.

spooning sourdough culture onto waxed paperYou have to make sure your starter culture is healthy and active to start with. It's a waste of time to dry a weak and inactive starter. I dried my San Francisco starter because I used up all the dried starter I was sent from America, and wanted to keep a store of it.

spreading sourdough culture on waxed paper1. All you have to do is spread out a teaspoonful of sourdough starter onto some kind of paper, such as greaseproof paper or baking paper. I used waxed paper, simply because I had some already. Spread it pretty thinly because it will dry quicker and more evenly that way

sourdough culture spread out ready for drying2. Once you have a thin even layer of sourdough on a piece of paper, place it in a safe place to dry out. I put mine close to a radiator, out of the way of prodding children.

dried sourdough culture3. It dried out overnight, crinkling up the paper as it did. You can see it in the photograph on the left.

flakes of dried sourdough culture4. Once it was dry I crumbled it into flakes. You only need a small pinch of these to make a new starter, because the beasts will multiply very quickly once you start feeding them. To reconstitute it, mix a pinch of dried flakes with a couple of tablespoons of cooled boiled water. Leave it for a few hours, then feed it a dessertspoon of strong white bread flour and half a dessertspoon of wholemeal or rye flour. Add a bit more cooled boiled water and stir well, then cover. Feed it this way two or three times a day and you should soon have a healthy active sourdough starter which will make delicious bread.

labelled packet of dried sourdough starter5. I stored the dried flakes in a plastic bag, clearly labelled. There's no way I'd be able to guess what these beige flakes are in a few months' time - they look like a lab sample of someone's horrible skin condition. I'll try to reconstitute them in a few weeks, just to test that it works. But I have great faith that it will. That's how the starter was sent to me in the first place.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Task Before Us

weedy allotment plotThis is the new bit of our allotment, the bit that Ed wants to grow pumpkins on. As you can see we've a big job ahead of us to clear all this in time for the growing season.

Sourdough Apple Fritters

apple fritter frying in oilAs promised, my recipe for sourdough apple fritters.

Sourdough Apple Fritters

Peel 2 or 3 or more apples, core them and slice them into rings. Beat together 1 1/2 cups of sourdough starter, 1 egg, some sugar (maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons? - I didn't measure, I just shook it in), a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda. Dip apple rings one at a time into flour then into the batter. Drop a battered apple ring into a saucepan half full of very hot oil. Fry for a minute or two on both sides and serve with vanilla ice cream. You could sprinkle cinnamon sugar on the fritters if you liked. I don't have a very sweet tooth and thought they were sufficiently sweet just as they were.
sourdough apple fritter

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tin Star

punched tin starI made this Christmas decoration using the tin base from a cardboard tub of dried milk. Lots of cardboard tubs have metal bases - cocoa powder, drinking chocolate etc. I cut them apart with scissors so I can recycle the cardboard and the metal. But I've always wondered if there was a creative way to reuse the metal disc.

I marked out the star on the tin disc with a felt tip pen. Then I placed a piece of scrap wood underneath the disc, and punched the holes with a hammer and nail. It only took a few minutes. If you saved a bunch of the discs it wouldn't take long to make a whole heap of them. I think it looks quite effective - not as dorky as some home-made decorations can be. What do you think?

Cartoon by Climate Cartoons. Click on the image to see the whole strip.

climate cartoon imagine my surprise

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sourdough Latkes

sourdough potato latkesOne of the nice things about baking sourdough bread daily is that you always have a dish of sourdough starter hanging about. Sourdough starter is flour and water which is fermenting - in other words, it's batter. So you can quickly cook anything that requires batter. I already posted a recipe for sourdough pancakes. I forgot to photograph my sourdough onion rings, but next time I make them I'll tell you all about it. I've plans to make sourdough apple fritters sometime soon. But today I want to show you my sourdough potato latkes.

It's basically the same recipe as the potato latkes I blogged about in July:

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.

But then instead of making batter from scratch, I took a cup and a half of sourdough starter. I added a beaten egg, a splash of milk and half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. I mixed the spuds with the sourdough batter, then fried dessertspoonsful of the mixture in butter, in a frying pan.

You can serve them as a side dish with roasted stuffed butternut squash, as I planned to do. But apparently they taste better red hot from the pan, stolen from the cook, and eaten with your hands burning your fingers in the process.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Flogging A Dead Horse

buy nothing christmasIn days of yore, sailors were paid in advance for their first month at sea. Most of them had usually spent all of it (or rather, drunk all of it) before they came aboard. So for their first month they were working to earn money they had already spent, and thus were not terribly motivated. Trying to get them to do anything was like flogging a dead horse, i.e. pointless. At the end of the month the sailors would make an effigy of a dead horse, beat it, then dump it overboard. This is (one version of) the origin of the phrase "flogging a dead horse".

Earlier this month I challenged you to calculate your hourly take-home pay. If you know this number, you can convert any purchase into "work-hours". So you can see that the beautiful wool coat you really want costs 30 work-hours, or the lunch at Starbucks that takes twenty minutes to eat will cost you a whole hour at work.

But what if your money is spent before you even earn it? Do your mortgage repayments, loans and credit card repayments eat up your entire paycheck? Maybe this isn't a year-round situation, but you over-extend yourself every Christmas, planning to pay it back in January. Then like the seamen, you spend the first month of every year flogging a dead horse.

It's none of my business. Maybe you like it that way. If you have thought about it and decided that a few days of mid-winter revelry are worth a January of belt-tightening, then that's your informed decision, and that's fine. But perhaps a few people reading this are thinking "No, I don't really enjoy it that much. It's just stressful and expensive. But I feel obliged."

I've sat staring at this post for a long time. I've deleted big parts of it, and then retyped some of it over again. I'm worried it sounds preachy. But honestly, I don't want to tell people how to spend their money. My main point is that no-one should tell you how to spend your money. But that's exactly what adverts do - and lots of people fall into the trap. It's not because they're stupid, it's because the ads are clever. They use sophisticated psychological techniques to make you feel that you won't be happy unless you buy their products. You won't be popular. You won't be attractive. You won't be a good parent. That's strong stuff. And they've bombarded you since your earliest years. They bombard you from all directions. And they bombard your family and friends so that if you try to break free, the people you love will accuse you of those same things they've seen in the ads. It's no joke. It's social engineering on a scale Chairman Mao could only dream of. And it works.

The point I'm trying to make is that you should decide for yourself what Christmas means to you, and you should decide for yourself how you spend your money. You can have a happy and stressless Christmas without spending lots of money. I swear it's true. Wake up. Think on. Opt out.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

2007 Retrospective

man wading through floods2007 was the year it rained. Non-stop. We had a lovely warm spring, but in May it began to rain and it didn't stop until August. This had a bad effect on our fruit and vegetable growing. Although some crops did well, others suffered either directly from the wet, or indirectly from the slugs and snails and our failure to go to the allotment as often as we should.

We got two colonies of bees from Ally of Ducking for Apples, but they went berserk and attacked all my neighbours, so I had to move them to an apiary a few miles away. We haven't taken any honey from them this year. Due to the weather the bees weren't able to forage as much nectar so their honey stores by the end of the season were low. But our own foraging efforts were pretty good as the weather dried up somewhat in the autumn. We made beer, which exploded, several batches of wine which aren't ready yet, and lots of different types of liqueur.

I became interested in ginger beer, and made a yeast-culture ginger beer plant from scratch. I later learned that real ginger beer is made using an authentic symbiotic culture called ginger beer plant. So I got one of those and now have my own continuous ginger beer production line. I picked wild mushrooms for the first time in my life. I cooked and ate them and didn't die. Which was nice. I haven't had any success identifying other types of mushrooms in my area, though, so I've left them alone. The ginger beer got me interested in other useful microbial cultures, and so I started making sourdough bread using wild yeast rather than packets of dried yeast from the shop. There are other types of useful culture, such as kefir and tibicos, and I'd like to try those in future.

I'll be glad when 2007 is over, just because of the ghastly weather we've had all year. The rain has been heavy again in November and December, and often when I've been out driving I've had to slow right down to go around puddles that cross both lanes of a dual carriageway. There are what look like ponds in the middle of many fields which should be dry, but they have had a standing puddle so long the grass underneath must be dead by now. I know there's no logical reason to imagine that on 1st January 2008, the sun will come out and everything will be different. But psychologically it feels like it might.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas at Friends of the Earth

friends of the earth reindeerIf you visit the Friends of the Earth website, you'll find plenty of Christmas crackers.

They're giving away 50 Lavera natural skincare kits as competition prizes. If you win, you could keep the kit for yourself or give it away as a present. And if you don't win, there are lots of ideas for gifts at the Friends of the Earth shop.

I know some greenies get hot under the collar about the hundreds of thousands of trees which are pulped every year to create the greetings cards we send. But I can't get agitated about that. Compared to other things we do, sending a letter is a pretty environmentally-benign way to stay in touch with the people we love and spread some goodwill at Christmas time. But if you'd prefer, you can save a tree and send a Friends of the Earth ecard.

Link Love

A roundup of some blogs I like, or have recently discovered.

I'm always linking to my sister's blog, A Roker Artist, but I never explain what it is. Steph was a prolific and gifted artist when she was younger, but marriage, children, work and housekeeping pushed painting and drawing to the sidelines for many years (why do we women allow that to happen? You can bet Michelangelo never felt he mustn't paint until he had caught up with the vacuuming and laundry). She wants to bring them to the fore again because they are a vital and precious part of who she is, but it's hard to create art in a vacuum so she blogs about her sketches, her works-in-progress and her completed works, as well as her life in general as it impacts on her creativity.

I'm hoping to convince our other sister, Lindsey, to start a blog too. Perhaps she could blog about her music and promote her wonderful new album.

Steph's best friend, Hazel, has recently started her own blog, Living and Mothering in the Chilly Northeast. Hazel blogs about natural parenting and childbirth. She's a qualified NCT breastfeeding counsellor and all round earth mother. I've never met her but I feel I know her because Steph tells me so much about her. Apparently we're kindred spirits, she and I, and it's nice to be able to get to know her through her blog.

Another new blogger about natural living is Mandi at Lettuce Live Naturally. Mandi is still finding her blogging voice, but so far she has published a mixture of long factual articles about irradiated food, dodgy historical medical treatments, and vaccinations, along with some lighter videos such as the one at the top of this post. I'll be keeping my eye on Mandi's blog.

There are a lot of gardening blogs in my blogroll. Petunia's Garden is one of my favourites, and I have recently been enjoying her beautiful photographs of her winter garden. I also enjoy reading Happy Hobby Habit. Not so much photography, this one, but her rant about Christmas shopping made me smile.

Chile Chews is a regular commenter here on Bean Sprouts, and blogs about sustainable living in the desert. One of the things I like about her blog is that her environment is so different from mine here in Cheshire, where it has rained more-or-less continuously throughout 2007. I enjoy reading The Frugal World of Doc, by an Australian handyman, for the same reason.

On the subject of frugal blogs, one of my favourites is Lazy Man and Money (subtitled Making My Money Work So I Don't Have To). It's more about personal finance than tips to save money by making orange nets into pot scrubbers, and as it's American some of the saving and tax advice is not relevant to UK readers. But I enjoy his philosophical articles, such as his cynicism about advertising.

Azura Skye has also been writing about advertising recently. She's following a raw food diet lately and blogging about that. I can't say it appeals to me in the slightest, but it's interesting to follow other people's experiments.

I hope you find time to check out some of these interesting blogs, and maybe leave them a comment to encourage them to keep on blogging. The whole blogging phenomenon is an interesting one - anyone can set up their soap-box and tell the world what's on their mind. Some of these people will attract a large readership. Some will attract a small but dedicated readership. And some will hardly be heard at all. And as blogs link to one another, and quote from one another, ideas spread out like ripples on a pond. I find it exciting, and I'm glad to be a part of it. Please tell me about other great blogs you think I should know about.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home-Made Firelighters

roaring open fireChestnuts roasting on an open fire... but how can you get the fire started without those stinky, expensive fossil-fuel-based firelighters? I loved this idea for home-made firelighters made entirely from stuff you would otherwise have thrown away.

Fill the compartments of a paper egg box with tumble-drier fluff. Melt waste wax1 in a double boiler (fill a saucepan with water and bring it to the boil, then place a glass or metal bowl over the top and melt the wax in that, so the wax doesn't get the direct heat from the stove, but only the indirect heat from the boiling water). Pour some wax into each egg compartment and allow to set.

I've tried it and they work just as well as shop-bought firelighters. You only need one to start a fire. Oh, and if you can start a fire without any artificial aids - keep it to yourself. I'm pyro-deficient myself, and usually leave the firelighting to Ed, anyway. There's no call to make me feel more inadequate than I already feel.

1. I used the wax from burnt-out candles, or you could use the wax from cheese if you buy wax-coated cheese.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mince Pies

mince piesMy carol concert on Saturday night was lovely. My sister Lindsey came with her husband Andrew, and so did Eleanor (aged 7) and Sam (aged 6). Ellie stayed awake throughout the concert for the first time ever, but Sam dozed off during the second half.

The audience were treated to mince pies and mulled wine in the interval (all part of the ticket price), so every member of the choir had to bring 6 mince pies. Mine were home-made, and following Kethry's and Tracy's suggestions, I added shredded orange rind to the rich sweet pastry. It was lovely, I think I'll always do that in future. I bet it would work well with pumpkin pie as well.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Carol Concert

St George's Singers 2007 carol concert posterI'm singing in a carol concert tonight with my choir, St George's Singers. It's always a popular concert, with carols by candlelight, brass band, mince pies and mulled wine. If you'd like to come, it's at St George's Church, Stockport (on the A6). It starts at 7.30pm, and the tickets are £12 (£10 for concessions, £1 for students and children).

I'm really looking forward to it. It always gets me in the Christmas mood.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Welcome Guardian Readers

Guardian UnlimitedBean Sprouts has been mentioned in The Guardian's Ethical Living Blog, so welcome Guardian readers. I hope you'll stick around and read some of the other articles, and maybe subscribe to the regular feed by clicking the "subscribe" link in the top right hand of the page.

Weed of the Week - Horsetails

horsetailsWe don't get these on the allotment but the odd one pops up in the garden. I hoik them out as soon as I see them because they'll take over if you let them. I've seen them growing up through tarmac and through concrete. I don't mean through the cracks, I mean straight up through the middle of the tarmac or concrete. Apparently they grow on motorways. I wouldn't put it past them.

They're weird-looking things, and it's no surprise that very similar plants have been found in fossils from the Carboniferous period, before flowering plants or grasses evolved. They don't have leaves as such, but spiny segments. They don't have flowers or seeds but reproduce by spores. They're coated with silica, and I've heard that in the past they were used for scouring pots. Don't bother spraying them with weedkiller. It doesn't even penetrate this coating.

I have mixed feeling about horsetails. They're a nuisance, but they have this strange prehistoric beauty to them. There are some gorgeous photomicrographs of horsetails at the Microscopy UK website which illustrate what I mean. Sometimes on gardening shows the presenter will enthuse about "architectural plants". Horsetails could fit that description. They almost look as if they're built rather than something that grows. They remind me of the early computer-generated landscapes in the 1980s, when we were all enthralled by fractals and chaos theory.

Horsetails - weird prehistoric alien silicon-based computer-generated weeds growing in my garden. I think the "cool" factor beats the "nuisance" factor. What do you think?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Christmas Quiz

I want you to spend a lot to prove you love your familyHere's a quick quiz about last Christmas:
1. What did your partner give you?
2. What did you give your partner?
3. What did your parents give you?
4. What did you give them?
5. What did you give your kids?
6. How much did you spend?

I'm not really interested in the answers, I'm interested in whether you found the questions easy or hard. In a recent BBC news story:

...more than half of men have forgotten what their partner got them last year. And women were also forgetful of their gifts, with 43.2% unable to recall what they received from their partners.

Here are a few more questions:
7. What's the best Christmas gift you ever received as a child?
8. What's the best Christmas gift you ever received as an adult?
9. What's the most memorable Christmas gift you've ever given?

I bet those questions were easier to answer. Think about your answers. Can they help you choose better gifts for your loved ones this year?

Here's the last question in the quiz:
10. What do you really want this Christmas? What gift would make this the best Christmas ever?

Does anyone in your family know you want this? Maybe it's something quite inexpensive and simple but if no-one knows about it you're unlikely to find it in your stocking. Maybe it's inexpensive but would be time-consuming to organise. You need to let the person who loves you most know about it well in advance. Maybe it's expensive - but if everyone who usually gives you a gift clubbed together perhaps they could afford it between them, instead of giving you lots of CDs and chocolate that you don't really want. One year everyone gave Ed money instead of gifts on his birthday (which is at the end of November) and at Christmas. It wasn't enough for the 6" astronomical telescope he wanted, but with some money he had saved himself he was able to buy what he really wanted. Now he wouldn't swap his telescope for all the novelty socks and tins of shortbread in the world.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Why You Should Know Your Hourly Pay

squander bug vintage wartime posterI set a challenge yesterday asking you to calculate your hourly pay, after tax and other non-avoidable outgoings. What does that have to do with being green? It's all about consumerism and avoiding over-consumption. There's a letter in The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn that illustrates what I mean:
...I went into the boys' rooms and made lists of last year's gifts (those that were still around), writing down the cost of each and estimating the time each had been played with. Some (jigsaw puzzles and board games) proved to have been good buys. Unfortunately, in other cases, my estimates showed that my husband had worked more hours to pay for a toy than my children had played with it!

I love my kids to little bits. I love to give them gifts and make them happy. And I hate it when I have to tell them "No, I can't play with you/read to you/talk to you right now. I have to work" (I work from home). So it makes no sense to spend all those hours working to buy them gifts which give less pleasure than if I worked less and spent more time just being with them. I'm sure Ed feels the same.

There's another quote I'd like to share with you from an article I found via this week's Festival of Frugality. The author of the quote is describing his feelings about finally buying his dream car, a Mercedes convertible:
The good feeling doesn’t last. We get used to having the Mercedes.
It’s spectacular. It’s better than sex the first week.
It’s better than a meal at a great restaurant the second week.
It’s pretty damn good the third week.
And after that it’s just your car.

(from A Penny Closer)

If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, if you find that your purchases give you enormous and lasting satisfaction, then I'm happy for you. But if what I've written strikes a chord then remember your hourly pay, and ask yourself before buying something - just how much pleasure is this going to give me? Is it really worth ten hours at work (or whatever)? Or could I spend this money better?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ginger Beer Around the World

home-made ginger beer bottlesI sent some ginger beer plant grains to a nice lady in Florida, in exchange for some sourdough starters. I made some delicious bread with the starters she sent me, and she is making ginger beer with hers. I love thhome-made ginger beer labelse label she made for her bottles.

It's fun to swap cultures with people and make friends all over the world. Of course, home-made bread and ginger beer is also a nice by-product.

December Challenge - Calculate your Hourly Pay

vintage book illustration grocery storeIn Living the Good Life by Linda Cockburn there is a paragraph that really opened my eyes:
Imagine walking through a warehouse full of TV's, cars, barbecues, software,books, clothes and more, and instead of having a dollar value it was instead magically converted into the hours you would need to work to pay for it. Imagine you make $15 an hour, after tax; some of that must go towards mortgage, insurances, medical expenses and other non-negotiable living expenses, so the hourly rate might be closer to $7.50. If you choose an item valued at $30, then you are going to need to work four hours to pay for it. It is no longer worth $30 - it's worth four hours of your life. Do you really want that item, or would you prefer half a day off to do with as you'd like?

How about you? Have you got shivers down your spine? That's the effect it had on me when I first read it.

I've got more to say about this, but I'll leave it at that for today. December's challenge is to calculate your hourly expendable income. It doesn't have to be to the exact penny. But most of you probably haven't got a clue what the figure will be, so all you need to do is improve on that state of cluelessness. Get a payslip and divide your net pay (take-home pay, after tax) by the number of hours you worked that month. If you know what you paid that month for your mortgage, loans, insurance, bills etc., so much the better. But if the thought of finding all that out makes your head hurt, just half the number you started with, as a quick-and-dirty figure.

Don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar when you've done it.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Three Bags Full

bags of shredded paperI found three bags of shredded paper on my front doorstep this morning. That's good, because I need them to clean out the chicken shed and replace the bedding. But I don't know who left them.

Sometimes the secretary at the kids' school gives me bags of shredded paper. But I don't think I've ever asked anyone else for shredded paper, or told anyone I use it. I suspect my sister Steph has been talking to someone over the weekend.

Christmas Decorations

Christmas decorated fireplace My sister, Stephanie, was here over the weekend. We met up with our other sister Lindsey (I wish we could have spent more time together, but Lindsey had house guests of her own). We sent Eleanor to school in a home-made Viking costume for Viking day. We decorated my house for Christmas, as you can see from the photo. We made olive bread, potato scones, mince pies and curtains. We celebrated Ed's birthday. We ate home-made pizza, lasagne and sourdough pancakes. We drank rather too much red wine, and talked about how to get more visitors to Steph's blog, the teacher in Sudan, Dr Strangelove, and our plans for the garage.

It was a good visit. I won't see Stephanie again until 2008, which is a shame.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Make A Gift Challenge Results

pie chart make a christmas gift challenge results 78 people voted in the Make A Gift challenge poll. The results were as follows:

I'm the spirit of Christmas present! I've made a Christmas gift! 50 votes

I'm the spirit of Christmas past! My home-made gifts were finished ages ago! 7 votes

I'm the spirit of Christmas yet-to-come! I'll buy all my gifts! 10 votes

I'm Ebenezer Scrooge! I don't give Christmas gifts! 11 votes

Thanks to everyone who participated. Doesn't it feel great to have made several Christmas gifts and it's still only the beginning of December? A new challenge for December will be posted soon.