Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas Bean Sprouts Readers

Happy Christmas to all Bean Sprouts readers. Unlike last year, I haven't been keeping you up-to-date with all my festive preparations. Sorry about that. But the preparations have been going on nevertheless - making decorations, giving carol concerts, making gingerbread houses, attending the children's nativity plays, making pickles, playing music, getting ready for dad's arrival from Ireland, and lots of other activities. December's full moon was observed, and the winter solstice remarked, but I didn't share them with you all. I feel bad about that, it's not you - it's me. I simply let myself get out of the habit of regular blogging. I promise to do better in 2009. But for now I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and see you again soon.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Tumble Dryer Again

A lot of people commented on the Tumble Dryer story I posted last week. Many were surprised that I admitted to having a tumble dryer. Simon Sherlock said "I'm astonished anybody can afford to run a tumble dryer at the moment, and amazed that Mel even considers one." And Compostwoman said "We don't have one...never have , never will..we dry stuff on the line OR in the house and if it looks wet, I don't wash stuff until another day."

But others were pleased I had written about it. Lizzie said "I felt a lot less naughty for occasional use of the tumble drier when I read your post Melanie. I cant dry on radiators at the moment as that would involve putting the heating on, which we havn't so far this year." and Anonymous said "It's easy for those who don't use tumble driers to feel smug - however consider that other people's life styles, house size, family size might make life more difficult for them to do this"

If people can dry their clothes without using electricity then obviously that's great. It's great for the environment, it's great for their finances, it's great for their clothes too - nothing feels or smells the same as line-dried clothes.

But for some people (me, for example, and several Bean Sprouts readers too) it's not an option all the time. And I guess for some people it's not an option any of the time. I don't feel bad about this. I do other things for the environment and for my bills. I am confident that I am doing what I can do. And I keep trying to learn more and do more to do my bit to live more sustainably on the planet.

I'm thinking of changing the tagline on this blog to "Bean Sprouts - Greener Than Thou". Just kidding. I'm actually thinking of changing it to "Bean Sprouts - You Don't Have To Do Everything". You don't have to do everything. You just have to do something. You don't have to live in a cave. You don't have to go about in damp clothes if there's just no green way for you to dry them. You don't have to save the planet single-handedly. And you don't have to feel bad about the things other people do that aren't practical for you. There's almost certainly something you do that they don't do, anyway. It's not a competition to see who's greenest. What it is, is a feeling of personal responsibility that I should do my bit. And I do, so my occasional use of the tumble dryer doesn't bother me.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Funnies

I love this video of a bloke who spends over £80 on beauty products which the saleswoman promised would make him feel more youthful, energised and better-looking. Two weeks later he shows "before and after" photos of himself to passers-by who all agree he looks no different. So he returns to the store and loudly demands his money back. The reactions of the staff and other shoppers are priceless.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Buy Nothing Day

Happy Buy Nothing Day 2008! According to the BND website:

It's a simple idea, which challenges consumer culture by asking us to switch off from shopping for a day. Its a global stand off from consumerism - celebrated as a holiday by some and street party for others! Anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending!

As we enter the headlong rush towards Christmas, it sometimes seems like every celebration is an excuse for a huge orgy of consumption these days. So I really love the idea of a celebration specifically and solely about non-consumption. I will be observing BND 2008 by working on my home-made Christmas presents and spending time at home with my family. We might paint some Warhammer fantasy miniatures together. We might play some multi-player Wii games. If the weather is nice we might head to the park. I'll probably send some Buy Nothing Day e-cards (they're free, natch).

What are you going to do for Buy Nothing Day 2008?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tumble Dryer

tumble dryerMy broken tumble dryer has been repaired. Hurrah! I think it did me no harm at all to do without it for a while. It's good to have a reminder that the old ways of doing things still work. And certainly I got lazy and used the dryer when I could really have hung things on the line instead. But by golly, it's good to have it back.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Funnies

Buy Nothing Day 2008 is coming soon. If you're not sure what BND is all about or whether you want to participate, watch this short animation by Friends of the Earth

Cartoon strip by Throbgoblins. Click the panel to read the whole strip.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

One Week to Buy Nothing Day

In one week's time it will be Buy Nothing Day again. It's a day where you challenge yourself to switch off from shopping and tune into life.

The rules are simple, for 24 hours you will detox from consumerism and live without shopping. Anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending!

It's time to plan what you are going to do for Buy Nothing Day 2008. Check out the BND website for an event to join, such as the Food For Free Freeconomy Feast in Bristol, the Big Green Giveaway in Birmingham, or the Go Green Fair in Southampton. Or you could organise your own event in your local town, there are hints and tips on the Toolkit page at the BND website. Or you could spend some time with people you like doing something fun that doesn't involve buying stuff. How radical is that?

What are you going to do? Leave a comment and let me know.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sprouts - Not Just for Christmas

In the summer I long to eat salad and vegetables, fish and cold chicken. But when the cold weather comes I welcome the swede and leeks, roast meats, pies and casseroles, and yes, sprouts. It seems to confuse Ed when I serve sprouts. He said "It's not Christmas yet is it?" But sprouts are not just for Christmas. Steamed and served with a knob of butter and plenty of black pepper (or better still, ground nutmeg), they're divine. I had mine with a nice gammon steak and some boiled potatoes.

The next day I used the leftover vegetables and some proper corned beef from the butcher to make bubble and squeak for my lunch the next day. And that's the best bit of all. Ed doesn't realise, but that's the real reason I served him sprouts the night before.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Make a Christmas Gift

Ellie and Tom in Tudor costumesHow are you doing with the Make a Christmas Gift Challenge? I have to confess, I haven't yet started on dad's waistcoat. I did do a lot of sewing though. I made historical costumes for two of my children. Their school organises historical days each year, and sends home a description of what sorts of clothes the children should wear on the day to get into the feel. The teachers dress up too, it's always great fun. Last year everyone was1 Vikings, and the year before it was WWII. This year they were Tudors.

Dad, if you could email me or phone me with your chest measurement. That's all I need to know to make you a waistcoat. I promise I'll get stuck in straight away. I enjoyed making the kids' costumes and I'm in the mood to do more garment sewing.

22 of you voted already to say you have started making Christmas gifts, so I'm definitely behind the field but I'm determined to catch up. If you haven't already voted, why not? You can find the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

R.I.P. Hugg

Two days ago Hugg died. Hugg used to be one of my favourite websites - run by the fabulous Treehugger, it was like Digg for green stories. I used to submit Bean Sprouts stories to Hugg to get a few more hits here, and a few of them made the front page. I never made the front page of Digg. And I also read Hugg to get a heads-up on upcoming green stories. It rocked.

But really Hugg had been sick for a long time. It started to die about a year ago, when Treehugger relaunched it with much fanfare. Except new Hugg was a bit like new coke. It sucked. It wasn't half as good as old Hugg. The readership of Hugg dwindled. The amount of traffic it brought to Bean Sprouts dropped to about nothing. The number of good stories on there dropped to only slightly more than nothing. And I gave up on it. So it's not really a surprise that Treehugger gave up on it too.

R.I.P. Hugg. We really need something to replace you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

poppyToday is the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War. On Sunday I attended a remembrance service at Poynton church. My 7-year-old son, Sam, was there with his beaver scout unit, dressed in his uniform and marching in the parade. Inside the church a young local man who had just returned from Afghanistan spoke about his experiences. As we all stood by the war memorial for the two minute's silence at 11am, I watched the cub scouts shivering in their shorts and wondered what they made of it all. I think perhaps in a world where they are mostly pestered by their parents to wrap up warm, they must at least have understood that this was something important. Important enough that hundreds of people gathered on a sleety November day to shiver together with heads bowed.

I stood in remembrance services as a child myself. I knew what they were about. Well, sort of. They were about The War (we still say "The War", as if there was only one war. As if war is now over. As if). They were about the Men Who Died (and the men who lived, and the women who died and lived). Ah, forget it, I didn't really understand at all. When I stand in remembrance services now I look at my sons shivering in their scout uniforms, standing next to boys who look hardly older in their army uniforms, some with medals already on their chests. And I shiver too.

But I still don't understand. I haven't been to war. Nobody I know personally has been to war whilst I've been alive. I try to imagine what it would be like if my children joined the services and went somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq. I understand more now than when I was a child, but I still don't really understand.

I hope I never understand. I hope my kids never go to the front. I hope we will soon bring our boys home from Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope we learn to quit meddling with other parts of the world - we only ever make things worse in the long run. I hope we use our brave servicemen and women to defend our own country if need be and to do peacekeeping services around the world, but not to make war. I hope we equip them properly for that job, and repay them properly for their service, take care of their families properly and take care of them if they are injured. I hope Britain never starts a war again, and I hope we never again join the cause of a nation that starts a war. This I hope, and I pray.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Pumpkin Pie

pumpkin pie mixtureI made pumpkin pie today, as I do every year from the scrapings of our Hallowe'en pumpkins. This year I used ready-made shortcrust pastry for a change. After all, the pastry isn't the best thing about the pie, it's really just a shell to hold the spicy pumpkin-flavoured custard. So why take a lot of effort over it if you don't want to?

Delia Smith got a lot of stick a little while ago for teaching people how to cheat at cooking. I don't understand why though. I'll take Delia over ten of your Gordon Ramsays any day. I understood what Delia meant, and I think it showed a deep understanding of the difference between good food and bad food. Take instant powdered mashed potato for example. It's a travesty. It's not food at all. It's some sort of fake food substitute. Here are the ingredients (I found them on the web):
Potato (82%), Full Cream Milk Powder (15%), Salt, Emulsifier: Mono and Di Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Antioxidant: Ascorbyl Palmitate, Natural Colour: Curcumin

It can't do you any good to eat it and it doesn't even taste nice. But frozen mashed potato is a different kettle of fish. The ingredients are:
Potato, Milk, Butter (2%), Salt, White Pepper.

I don't know how you make mashed potato, but that's exactly how I do it. And that's what Delia was trying to say. Use your brain. Distinguish good food from bad food. You don't have to make everything from scratch. Even top chefs don't do that. I know how to make butter from scratch but I only do it once in a while, for fun (or by accident). Most of the time I buy my butter like everyone else, top chefs included. I know how to make bread from scratch. Is it cheating if I buy a loaf instead? How about if I buy it from a farmer's market instead of from a supermarket? Is that less cheating? Why?

What matters is not that you make every damn thing from scratch every time, but only that you know good food from bad, and that you choose the good food most of the time. If having access to ready made pastry means you make apple pie at home from apples, sugar and cinnamon, rather than buying Mr Kipling's apple pies (ingredients: Wheat Flour, Apple (21%), Sugar, Vegetable Oil, Glucose Syrup, Dextrose, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Modified Maize Starch, Humectant (Vegetable Glycerine), Salt, Acidity Regulator (Malic Acid), Raising Agents (Disodium Dihydrogen Diphosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate), Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Metabisulphite), Gelling Agent (Sodium Alginate), Adipic Acid, Milk Protein, Flavouring) then I think ready-made pastry is a really good thing.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Remember, Remember

Mel holding Tic TacEleanor reminded me last night to shut Tic Tac, our cat, indoors all night. It was Bonfire Night here in England and animals can be traumatised by all the bangs and flashes.

It was good advice and I intended to follow it. But I had felt flu-ey all day, and I fell asleep (or perhaps "passed-out" would be more truthful) at about 5pm and slept through until 7.30am. So I never did lock the cat flap last night.

This morning when I woke up Tic Tac was not about. This was worrying as he is the most intensely sociable cat I have ever known. He is always there when the family is assembled, trying to join in the activity and the conversation and generally thinking that he's a human being. I went out into the garden and called his name over and over. And Ed walked up and down the crescent looking for him, to no avail.

Then when I was ushering the kids into the car to take them to school, I heard something. With difficulty I persuaded the kids to be silent and we could clearly make out the sound of a cat mewing. We tracked down the sound to our garage. Ed had accidentally locked him in when he locked up his motorbike for the night (I told you the cat follows us around and tries to join in with everything we do).

So Tic Tac had been locked inside for Bonfire Night after all. Perhaps the angel of cats was looking after him when I was too poorly to do it myself.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Portrait of Tom

Tom portraitMy sister Steph has gone home. We always have a great time when she's here. This time we spent a lot of time celebrating Hallowe'en - decorating the house, carving pumpkins, organising costumes and face-painting for everyone, children and grown-ups. We made mock pumpkin soup and stuffed squash. We got together with our other sister, Lindsey and her husband Andrew and had a lot of fun. We also painted some of Tom's Warhammer miniatures - his latest hobby is fantasy wargaming.

But mainly we did art. Steph taught me to use soft chalk pastels. I'd never used them at all before she arrived. I did a number of drawings with the pastels under Steph's guidance, but I'm happiest with this one of Tom. In fact, I've framed it and hung it in the living room.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sunday Funnies

George Carlin on saving the planet.

Cartoon by Marc Roberts at Throbgoblins. Click on the panel to read the whole strip.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

November Challenge - Make a Christmas Gift

Mel SewingAssumption #1 - Sometimes you get to Christmas and wish you had given hand-made gifts instead of buying everything from Argos (or wherever)

Assumption #2 - One year you decided to give only hand-made gifts for Christmas, and ended up with a nervous breakdown because you couldn't possibly do it all in time

Assumption #3 - At least once you decided to make someone a hand-made gift for Christmas but didn't get it finished in time. In fact you never got it finished at all

So, this year is going to be different. I'm going to give at least one hand-made gift this Christmas, but no more than three. And they're not going to be huge and time-consuming. They're going to be of a size and scale that is achievable without me being committed to a mental institution. And I'm going to start now. This week. That's November's challenge.

I have already agreed with my dad that I am going to make him a waistcoat for Christmas. he and I picked the pattern together, and bought the fabric and all the notions. All I need are his measurements. So dad, I'll be emailing you a list of the dimensions I need. If you can't do them yourself, you'll have to ask one of your friends to measure you. Once I've got the measurements I'm going to get stuck in, and it will be finished in plenty of time. I've made garments many times before, so I know how long it will take to do. It's not so quick and easy that dad might feel I hadn't spent any time or effort on his gift. But it's not so big and time-consuming that I won't have it finished in time (like dad's quilt which is still half-quilted). It's just the right size for a hand-made Christmas gift project.

If you'd like to join in, choose a realistic gift to make for someone this Christmas, and get started as soon as possible. Tell me what you have decided to make, and keep me posted about your progress. And don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar to say when you've done it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Pumpkin Ale

Badger Pumpkin AlePumpkin Ale by Badger. Is it just me or is "real ale" getting crapper? This gimmicky "bitter" actually had very little bitterness and an overload of sweetness and fizziness. The flavour wasn't very complex or interesting. I could maybe detect a hint of pumpkin and clove flavours like it said on the label. But to be honest if it didn't have "pumpkin" printed on it, and a cute carved pumpkin on the cap, I don't think I would have said "ooh! tastes of pumpkin" just from drinking it.

If you like Hobgoblin by Wychwood you might like this. They're similarly sweet and fizzy. Actually Hobgoblin is rather better than this, the flavours are darker and more complex. Pumpkin Ale could be an interesting thing to serve at a Hallowe'en party where the company and the atmosphere are more important than the food and drink. I'm sure it would taste a lot better if you were wearing fancy dress and listening to "The Monster Mash". But I won't be buying it again after today.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Thursday, October 30, 2008


woman shoppingMy sister Lindsey and I went through my wardrobe and yanked out everything that doesn't fit me any more, everything too ratty to wear any more, and other things that needed de-cluttering. We also discovered some things I haven't worn for ages, and things I had forgotten I owned, and Lindsey suggested different ways of combining items into outfits I hadn't thought of before. Then she took some things from the "give to charity" pile that she wanted for herself. It was a lot of fun.

The next day she brought me some things from her own wardrobe that she didn't wear any more and thought would suit me, or would go with outfits I already had. And we hit the local charity shops and found some great bargains. We bought a few items new, too, from a shopping list we devised of "must-haves" (e.g. that brown skirt you have is fabulous but you really need a couple of matching tops and a brown belt to go with it).

So now I have a totally new wardrobe of outfits to wear, but with a minimal budget. And Lindsey and I had a great time together doing sisterly girly stuff, dressing up and trying different looks out. I get the point of retail therapy. I understand why people like to go to the shopping mall for a day as a leisure activity to cheer themselves up. I understand the pleasure of coming home with an armful of trophies from your day of 21st century hunting-and-gathering. But my green instincts rebel at the wastefulness of shopping for the sake of shopping, and treating clothes as if they were disposable. So it's nice to find ways of getting the same retail rush with a clean eco-conscience.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hen House Cleaning

henhouseI thought I was so clever, using shredded waste paper as chicken bedding. But the problem is that shredded paper, when combined with chicken poo and left to dry, becomes a kind of combination of papier mache and adobe. It's almost completely impossible to remove from any surface it adheres to, including hens' ankles. On the other hand, I may have inadvertently invented an exciting new environmentally-friendly building material.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yesterday's News

recycled Chinese pencilsSteph and I went to my favourite art and craft supplies shop, Fred Aldous in Manchester. And one of the things we bought was a set of coloured pencils made from recycled Chinese newspapers. The newspapers are so tightly wrapped around the coloured lead that it feels like a normal wooden pencil, and can be sharpened with a regular pencil sharpener. But you can read the text on the outside of the pencil (if you can read Chinese). The packaging seems to be made of Chinese newspapers too. Very groovy.

You can also buy them online for £2.99 from

Monday, October 27, 2008

My Biggest Fan

drying laundry with a fanIf you are drying clothes indoors, either through choice or necessity, an electric fan speeds it up considerably but it still uses a lot less juice than a tumble dryer.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday Funny

Sorry I didn't post yesterday. I haven't vanished again. But my sister Steph has arrived for a visit over half term. We've been learning to draw in pastels (well I've been learning, Steph is already very good at it), decorating the house for hallowe'en, shopping for our brother-in-law Andrew's birthday presents (happy birthday Andrew!) and generally having lots of fun.

Since it's Sunday, here are some funnies:

After an exhaustive three year study, scientists at the University of the Isle of Dogs, East London, (UIDEL) have discovered what they think could be the real cause of global warming - people all over the world hanging out their washing to dry writes special washing correspondent Barry Rooster.

The boffins say that when freshly-laundered clothes - especially whites and light coloureds - are hung on washing lines, they reflect the sun's rays upwards, leading to an increase in the greenhouse effect.

Head of Research Gunther Smallpiece comments: "We've previously been told to reduce the temperature on our washing machines to save electricity, but this is fact counter-effective. We will recommend to the government that the population use the full drying cycle on their machines, instead of hanging the garments outside in the fresh air". And he goes further: "This is so serious, we'd like to see hanging washing outdoors to be banned in the same way as smoking indoors.""We'd like to see it become, if you like, a 'hanging offence'!", he jokes, proving conclusively that even dull scientists do have a sense of humour.

From The Spoof.

Cartoon from Throbgoblins. Click on the panel to read the whole strip.

Throbgoblins cartoon panel. Click to read the whole strip.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How Bean Sprouts Can Help You Survive the Credit Crunch

Cartoon by Throbgoblins. Click to read the whole strip.So, the Credit Crunch. Funny to think that when Bean Sprouts began its sabbatical at the end of August, the credit crunch was part of the lesser-read financial news. Now it seems like it's on the front page every day. Today, for example, the announcement that Britain has officially entered an economic downturn and in all probability is in recession. So how can the Bean Sprouts archives help?

Well there is a wealth of articles in the archives tagged "frugal" which can help anyone who is tightening their financial belt. By far the most popular is How to Make Greek Yogurt, and if you don't like the Greek stuff you can also find out how to make regular yogurt and how to make Philadelphia-type soft cheese. You might also want to check out the very popular How To Get Started With Chickens - Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 3.

It's also worth looking at the posts tagged "foraging" to find out if you can pick any leaves, fruits, nuts, berries or mushrooms and get food for free. You can also find out how to make them into wine, jam, liqueurs, chutney and so on.

You might also consider signing up to Freecycle or one of the alternatives. You might want to join the Freeconomy community.

For a more general discussion of using your brain to reduce overconsumption without hardship, check out Money-Saving Toothpaste Tip, and if you're feeling blue and deprived then watch The Story of Stuff and console yourself that by saving money, you're also saving the planet. Find out Why You Should Know Your Hourly Pay. And if you're wondering why we're all in this mess in the first place, find out what sustainability means and think about why anybody could seriously expect that the economy can keep on growing forever.

Cartoon from Throbgoblins. Click the panel to read the whole strip.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

When is an A-Rated Appliance Not?

broken tumble dryerWhen is an A-rated appliance not an A-rated appliance? When it only last 2 years before irreparably breaking down. Five years ago we bought a White Knight A-rated tumble dryer. As far as I know it was and still is the only A-rated dryer available. We really liked it. It has some nifty features like reverse tumble - it changes the direction it tumbles every few minutes, so your clothes don't end up in a tight sausage, bone dry and hot on the outside and wet in the middle. It has a sensor, so it goes until the clothes are dry then it stops automatically. I used this feature to test the tumble dryer balls a couple of years ago. You can set it to full-eco-mode where it takes all day to get your clothes dry but uses very little energy in doing so (this is the A-rated mode), or you can set it to murder-death-kill-mode where it blasts your clothes dry in an hour or so. But even in this mode it seems very gentle and I have stopped being fussy about what I tumble-dry and what I air-dry because nothing has ever shrunk in this dryer.

But just over two-and-a-half years after we bought it the drum ripped clean off the bearing leaving a huge ragged hole in the back of the drum. We inquired about getting a replacement drum but it was totally uneconomical - it cost more to do this than to buy a whole new appliance. So we bought another identical dryer. After all, we liked the model very much. Maybe it was a freak manufacturing fault which made it fail so quickly. But just in case it wasn't, we took out the optional 5-year-warranty.

It is more "green" to replace a part than to replace the whole appliance
We're very glad we did, because 2 years and 1 month after we bought it, the exact same fault happened again. And this time the warranty-people have ordered a replacement drum. I don't know why it is economical for them to do it when it wasn't economical for us, but hey-ho. I feel a bit ambivalent about this. It is more "green" to replace a part than to replace the whole appliance, so that's nice. But if they had just sent me a cheque to buy a new dryer, I would have avoided this model like the plague. I feel sure the new drum will also fail in another two years - or more likely in about 3 years, when the 5-year-warranty has expired.

How much energy have I saved by using an A-rated appliance compared to another appliance? I don't know. it depends on exactly how often I have used it, which varies from season to season. And it depends on how much I have used it on A-rated mode and how often I used it on regular mode, which also varies. I put slow-mode on when Ed is at work all day and I just tune-out the sound of the endless rumbling. But in the evenings and at weekends when Ed and the kids are at home I put it on fast-mode. There is enough noise in the house at those times without adding to it.

the embedded energy of the appliance
But how much energy is there in the extraction and processing of the materials that made the appliance? How much energy was used in its manufacture and transport? This is the embedded energy of the appliance. Think of it like the cost of owning a car - if a car is very cheap to run, then that's nice. But if it is very expensive to buy in the first place then that weighs against the cheapness of running. Maybe it still works out cheaper overall, as long as you keep the car on the road long enough. But if you buy an expensive car that breaks down after two years, then it's always going to be uneconomical compared to a car that lasts a long time. I don't think the White Knight dryer deserves to call itself A-rated if it only lasts two years, because I suspect the embedded energy outweighs the energy savings in use.

it is better to dry clothes on the line, and I do this when I can
P.S. yes, it is better to dry clothes on the line, and I do this when I can. But it has rained in England almost without let-up for the last two years. OK that's not strictly true, but it feels true. We have certainly had an unusually wet period for two years now. So line drying has been difficult, and I find a dryer is an essential emergency back-up when every surface in the house is covered in wet clothes and the kids need clean school uniforms by the morning.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sad News

charcoal sketch of chickensOn Saturday I spent some time in the garden sketching things in charcoal, including the chickens. They all seemed fine. On Sunday I got dressed up in old jeans with holes in them, an old faded t-shirt, marigold gloves, headscarf and wellys (with a fetching cow-skin print) and went to clean out the chicken coop and run. It's a mucky job, and long overdue this time, but satisfying. I spotted one of the new Rhode Island Reds lying in the run, apparently dead. She moved a little when I went to investigate, but shortly afterwards she did expire.

I don't know what was wrong with her. She had seemed fine the day before. All the other chickens are healthy and well except for a mite infestation, which is why I went out to clean the housing and treat it. Anyway mites on a chicken are like fleas on a dog - they're annoying but not lethal. There was no sign that anything had got into the run or harmed her. She was only 18 months old.

We have two older chickens, both hybrid layers, which we got at the same time and have always got along well with each other. Then we got two Rhodies in January, and they were pals with each other but the older girls bullied them a bit. Well whilst I was cleaning the hen house, the surviving Rhodie went over to her dead sister, lowered her head to her and made soft clucking noises. I don't think we should anthropomorphise animals (anyway, they don't like it), but it was impossible not to interpret it as saying something like "Elsie? Are you OK? Elsie, what's the matter? Get up!" And she pecked at the dead bird a couple of times as if prodding her to move.

I buried her at the back of a flower bed. I might pop a few spring bulbs on top later.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Did You Miss Me?

Sorry for the long break. Nothing horrible happened to prevent me from posting but thanks for all your concern, I'm really touched. After I came back from London, dad came to stay for a few weeks. I kept telling myself "I'll get back to blogging when things get back to normal", but somehow I didn't. Call it "the blogging blahs", call it getting out of the habit, call it sheer laziness, I don't know what.

I've got a new guitar, the first guitar I have ever bought for myself, so I've been playing a lot. I have been learning to draw and putting my drawings on a "secret" (or at least un-publicised) blog purely so my family far away can see them. But some of you have found it, you crafty things. I'll probably put some drawings on Bean Sprouts when they are relevant to the posts, but this isn't going to turn into an art blog. It will remain about living sustainably and our family's search for the good life. I've been watching old musicals with my 8-year-old daughter, like The King and I, and Calamity Jane. That's been a lot of fun. One of our chickens died from unknown causes. The allotment has been utterly neglected, we're thinking hard about what we want to do with that. Sam turned 7. I'm looking forward to Hallowe'en, Stephanie will come up then and I'm sure we'll hook up with Lindsey too. Life has been going on as it always does.

I already have ideas for the next few blog posts. More about our chickens, about keeping chickens in general, and particularly about pest control. When is an A-rated appliance not an A-rated appliance? And getting started making home-made Christmas gifts, but realistically. It may take me little time to get back into the "post every day, or more" habit. But I'm back now anyway, and it feels good. I missed you guys too!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gunga Din

It rained the whole time in Ireland, but we had fun despite it. We went to the boat my dad keeps with his friend on Lough Derg. We went to Bunratty castle and folk park, we played a D&D game with the kids, and we invented our own board game and played that. I taught Steph to crochet granny squares and we started work on an afghan for dad. Dad read us poems by Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling and Banjo Patterson whilst we crocheted. I practiced a new bluegrass fingerpick I was learning on the guitar until I drove everyone crazy (but they all agreed I had improved by the end of the week).

The kids played in the Irish farmland surrounding dad's house come rain or shine. They shoveled up gravel from a heap and scattered it all across the yard; on the last day Steph and I spent an hour sweeping it back into a heap. The kids furnished a "den" in the hedgerow by the lane and spent a lot of time carrying stuff up there.

We watched a clutch of swallow chicks in dad's barn get bigger and bigger - before long they'll be ready to fly. We identified most of the wild flowers we found on dad's land (ragwort, greater plantain, ribbed plantain, welted thistle, creeping thistle, creeping buttercup, herb robert, yarrow, short-fruited willowherb, selfheal and others) and we identified all the birds (goldfinches, house sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, robins, chaffinches, blue tits, great tits, greenfinches, jackdaws, hooded crows, wagtails, swallows, and others).

Tomorrow we're off on our travels again - to London this time with Ed (he didn't come to Ireland) for our main family holiday of the year. I'll resume normal regular blogging when I return.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Going to Ireland

dad waiting for us to arriveThe kids and I are going to Ireland to stay with my dad for almost two weeks. My two sisters will be there too, with my nephew and niece. Poor old Ed is staying at home, but we'll be having our family holiday together when we get back. I've lined up some blog posts to be published every day whilst I'm away. But my dad's Internet connection is absolutely abominable so I won't be able to respond to emails or comments until I get back.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hedgerow Wine

hedgerow wineHedgerow wine, 2007 vintage. A ripe blackberry nose with overtones of elderberry and haws leaving a damson finish on the palate with just a hint of sloes. This isn't nonsense wine-journo-speak, it's because it is made from blackberries, elderberries, haws, damson and sloes. Quaffable, and outstanding in its price bracket of about 20p/bottle.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sunday Funnies

Well, OK, he's not being very funny in this clip but he's bang on the money.
There can be no meaningful response to climate change without massive social change. Anything else is just decadent

Preach it, Rob.

Cartoon from Marc Roberts at Throbgoblins

Monday, August 11, 2008

Weed of the Week - Rosebay Willowherb

rosebay willowherbRosebay willowherb is also known as fireweed due to its habit of colonising areas devastated by fire. It also flourished on bombsites during the Blitz. It's not usually a problematic weed. You can easily pull it out when it pops up. If you take over a neglected patch of land there might be plenty of willowherb growing on it, but it's nothing like as troublesome as bindweed or couch grass or any of those difficult weeds. Do pull it up before it sets seed though, as it makes downy seeds which float up and spread everywhere.

I think it's a very handsome plant, and apparently it was introduced as an ornamental. I'm not at all surprised, and I don't know why we don't still grow it as a flowering garden plant. I think it looks a lot better than some of the things you can buy in the garden centre. I've seen some references that say you can eat it, but it doesn't seem to be a great delicacy. You can eat anything that isn't actually poisonous, but whether it's worth the effort is a different question.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Newspaper Mirror

My sister Stephanie and I have been on a real recycled mirror kick recently. Stephanie made this one from newspaper, thread, cardboard, and a piece of mirror tile. She rolled sheets of newspaper into tubes and flattened
them, then she stitched them onto a circle of corrugated cardboard. She cut out the hole in the centre and glued a piece of mirror behind. Then she backed the whole thing with a piece of thin card. Everything was recycled. I think it looks very effective, and it is hanging on my wall close to my computer.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Holiday, A Holiday

Cropredy 2008 posterWe're off to the Cropredy music festival today for four days. We've gone every year since we were teenagers. We love the camping, the music, the food, the shopping, the atmosphere, we love meeting up with our friends, we even love the weather. I've written some blog posts and saved them to be published automatically whilst we're away. But I won't be able to reply to emails or comments until I get back. And even then I'm only back for a couple of days before I head straight off to my dad's house in Ireland.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Make Do and Mend Challenge

make do and mend posterI recently had a generous offer from a skilled woodworker I know - he offered to repair any damaged guitars belonging to my young guitar students, without charge. The children usually buy a cheap instrument to learn on and I don't blame them. Most of them drop lessons after a few months and their parents don't want to invest in a quality instrument without being sure the child is committed. But these poor-quality instruments often end up breaking even without rough handling (although undoubtedly some of them do receive rough handling), and the cost of repairing them far outstrips the cost of replacing them.

I can do minor guitar surgery myself, and frequently do. But there were several instruments that were beyond my skills to repair. I took a variety of busted guitars to my friend's house, and he returned them all amazingly fast, and better than new. He wouldn't accept any payment, and said he enjoyed doing it. As well as a skilled craftsman he is also a keen musician - he has a beautiful tenor voice and I know he enjoys attending concerts as much as he enjoys performing music. So it gave him a buzz to help encourage a new generation of musicians. The children and their parents were delighted, too. And I was over the moon to see the new motivation my students had once their instruments were repaired - many of them had had their enthusiasm dented by having to use a damaged or borrowed instrument.

Repairing something is much better than replacing it, and not just for the obvious reasons of saving money and saving the planet's resources. When we repair things we start to see ourselves as competent and skilled. Consumerism takes that away from us. When we repair things we build up a relationship with the item we repair, it has a history for us and we respect it more than something we "just bought". When we have repaired a few things and we start to become good at it, we have a skill we can share with other people, whether for money or just for love and friendship. We can earn good will and respect from people by sharing our skill with them.

Repair something this month, and tell me how it makes you feel differently about your belongings and the world around you. Don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand-sidebar when you've done it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Put a Plug in it Challenge Results

Put a Plug in it Challenge pie chartJuly's challenge was to put a plug in the bath whilst you shower to see how much less water you use in a shower compared to a bath. It only really applied to people like me who have a shower unit over their bathtub. So I was really surprised to see that it got a good response. 58 people took part in the poll and the results were as follows:

  • I put the plug in the bath when I showered! 30 votes (51%)
  • I don't want to put the plug in the bath when I shower! 7 votes (12%)
  • I haven't got a shower over my bath! 21 votes (35%)
It's so easy to tell ourselves that it doesn't really make much of a difference what we do, whether we try to be "green" or not, whether we have a bath or a shower, so I liked this simple way of seeing directly just how much of a difference it does make. I'm not the only one; TopVeg commented:
I much prefer a bath - & have been telling myself for months that it really does not use much more water. So, I felt quite bad when I took up your challenge, put the plug in & had a shower. The water did not get above my ankles! A converted showerer..

Some commenters shared the inspiring ways they recycle their bath and shower water. Carol Hague keeps a bucket in the bathroom and uses bathwater to flush the loo. Linz uses a bucket to take it to the garden, and Wulf also uses it in the garden via a droughtplug. Yellow washes her whole family of four in a single bath (I think they take turns rather than all go in at the same time) and Amy likes to get in and out quickly. Rob isn't satisfied with taking just one green challenge, but he has done a whole bunch of them and wrote a roundup of the challenges he has taken in the last few months.

There will be a new challenge for August coming soon.

Monday, August 04, 2008


roosting batsBats are among my favourite regular garden visitors. Other people may listen for the first cuckoo of spring, or look out for the returning swallows, but for me the first bat flying past my bedroom window marks the beginning of the warm season, and their disappearance tells me winter is on the way.

I sleep with my bedroom curtains open. My bedroom backs on to open fields and is not overlooked at all so I don't worry about privacy. I love to look at the stars or simply the clouds, although the moon is never visible from my bedroom window which is a bit sad. I like to be woken by the sunrise and in particular I like to watch the bats. I wish I could show you a photograph but they're incredibly fast and almost impossible to photograph on the wing, and I don't know where they roost so I can't show you a photograph of them resting. The (rather fuzzy) photo I have included is of some bats we saw roosting in a souterrain in Craggaunowen in Ireland last year.

I don't know what species they are. There are 17 species of bat in Britain, which is about a quarter of all our mammal species. The most common is the common pipistrelle, which is also the smallest at less than 2 inches long. The rarest is the greater mouse-eared bat which was thought to be extinct in this country but was recently discovered living in the south of England. The largest British bat is the noctule, but even this is only about 3 inches long and weighs less than 1 1/2 oz (40g). British bats are diddy, although their wingspans make them look bigger than that.

Sadly, like much of our native wildlife, British bats are in trouble. A combination of loss of habitat and insecticides wiping out their prey has caused their numbers to decline sharply. Now all British bats are protected by law. It is illegal to harm them or disturb them, or muck about with their roosting sites.

I've recently discovered you can get bat detectors - electronic devices which can hear the bats' sonar sounds and can identify the bat from the frequency of its squeak. They're not cheap, but maybe my local bat conservation group or wildlife trust can lend me one to identify my bats. I'll be looking into that and I'll tell you how I get on.

If you want to find out more about British bats, visit the Bat Conservation Trust.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

My Sister Visited

collage of photos from Stephanie's visitMy sister Stephanie went back home to Sunderland on Friday. She had been with us for two weeks. Whilst she was here we went to three farmer's markets, a National Trust property, we had a picnic in Calderstones park Liverpool, we went to the Liverpool Tate art gallery with our five kids (that was fun), we restored and painted some beehives, we made recycled mirrors, we met up with our other sister Lindsey three times, we bottled some honey, we made waffles, cookies, cheese scones, we went to a barbecue at my neighbour's house, we went to an agricultural show, we played Scrabble and Risk and we watched the first season of The Sopranos on DVD, we did some sewing, some drawing, some painting, some pyrography, some decoupage. We had a great time.

I went to the farmer's market again today and all the stallholders asked me "Where is your sister? Where is her baby?" It's still fun going to the farmer's market without her, but it's not as much fun.

I'll be seeing her again in only ten days' time when all the family are gathering at my dad's house in the west of Ireland. I'm looking forward to that, but in the mean time the house seems unnaturally quiet.

Cartoon by the talented and uncannily sexy Marc Roberts of Throbgoblins. He's recently published a great cartoon about allotments, but it has too many panels to fit neatly on a Bean Sprouts blog entry.

Marc Roberts cartoon panel 1

Marc Roberts cartoon panel 2

Friday, August 01, 2008

Recycled Mirror

recycled mirrorMy very talented and arty sister Stephanie made me a beautiful mirror decorated with recycled drinks cans. She cut the cans into small squares then folded the corners of the squares to form smaller squares with safe edges. Each small square was nailed onto an old wooden picture frame with a tack in each corner.

The picture frame used to be white and contained a picture of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. All our children are too old for Elmer now, so she remirror detailmoved the print and painted the frame with some blue and purple emulsion paint we found in the shed, before nailing the pieces of drinks can onto it.

Then Steph cut an old piece of mirror glass to fit the frame (we saved the mirror from an old wardrobe, it's been in the shed for years). And that was it, a beautiful new recycled mirror.

I was utterly delighted with it - until I found that she had cut up several drinks cans with my best dressmaking scissors.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What are Plastic Bags Made From?

turtle with a plastic bagHere's a difficult question - what are plastic bags made from?

If you had asked me yesterday I would have said "Oil". Is that what you said? Turns out we're both wrong. According to Nimic of The Green Routine plastic bags are mostly made from natural gas, in the US at any rate. I wonder what British plastic bags are made from?

Some of the commenters there seem to think he's nit-picking because natural gas is also a non-renewable fossil fuel. But I agree with Nimic's argument that:
As a community of green bloggers, we NEED to stop the hyperbole of plastic bags being made primarily from foreign oil. We have many strong and valid points as to why we should reduce or even ban the use of plastic bags without it.

For example, I've been meaning for some time to investigate the comparison between plastic bags and paper bags. I know that paper manufacture can be a very environmentally damaging activity. And paper bags are much heavier and bulkier than plastic bags so it takes a lot more fuel to transport them from the manufacturer to the store. So I've heard it said that paper bags are actually worse for the environment than plastic bags, which is a counter-intuitive claim and I really want to know the truth of it.

It's not good enough to fall back on knee-jerk reactions and unresearched assumptions. Especially if we're lobbying parliament or starting campaigns to ban plastic bags from our towns. We need to know the facts otherwise we look foolish. And worse than that, we'll be putting all our energy into actions that won't help save the planet.

Of course, regardless of whether plastic bags are made from oil or gas, regardless of whether paper bags are better or worse for the environment, the best answer is to use a sturdy reusable bag to bring your groceries home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Barrel of Bees!

bumblebee nestAn unusual offer appeared on my local Freecycle group recently; a barrel of bees!

Hi everyone! We have a blue plastic barrel with lid (I think originally a water butt with holes drilled in) which has amongst the old grass cuttings inside it, a lot of bees! ... Being a little afraid of angering them, and not wanting them in our garden near our toddler and baby, I was going to pop the barrel in a big sack and take it to the tip, but thought I'd see if there are any apiarists? (bee enthusiasts) out there who would like to adopt them! Thanks Becky

I replied to Becky's message immediately and said they were probably bumblebees. The next day she went out and took some photos of the colony. From another view of a bumblebee nestthat I was able to tell her they were definitely bumblebees, and although I'm very far from an expert on identifying bumblebee species they looked to me like they could be bombus hypnorum, also known as the tree bumblebee or the new garden bumblebee (or "le bee" by the redtop newspapers). They only arrived in Britain in 2001 from France but have spread astonishingly fast. That was quite exciting and I suggested she get in touch with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and get their opinion.

By this time Becky was quite interested in her bees, but still unhappy about them sharing the garden with an inquisitive toddler who liked to poke her fingers into the holes in the bee barrel. As a result of her Freecycle offer somebody took the bees to live on a farm near Matlock. And the Bumblebee Conservation Trust told her they were common carder bumblebees (bombus pascuorum) which isn't quite as interesting as having bombus hypnorum in your garden, but still pretty cool.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Market for my Honey

jars of honeyIn the local health-food shop today I noticed they didn't have any local honey. They said their usual supplier had lost all his colonies to a virus. I asked if that meant they were looking for a new supplier. "Oh yes," they said, "Do you know anyone?", "Well, it just so happens..."

So now I urgently need to get labels printed and buy some new jars of the proper size. And, of course, encourage the bees to make more honey. When we checked them on Sunday morning they still hadn't begun to draw out the frames of foundation that we put on when we took the honey over a week ago, much less start to fill them with honey. It's a bit of a mystery.

We put a second brood box on top of the first one to give the queen more space to lay eggs. We want to build up a really strong colony so we can divide it and have two strong colonies by the time winter comes. And we gave them back the drained frames we took the honey from. They should lick those clean, repair them, and start to fill them with honey again. The weather has been great and it's the height of the nectar flow. They should be able to fill a super with honey in a couple of weeks in conditions like this.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Many a True Word is Spoken in Jest

We were discussing the problem of plastic bags, and my friend Carl Williams said:
I like Lidl's scheme, common practice in Germany - charge for 'em. The lengths people will go to to save 10p *VASTLY* outstrip the lengths they'll go to not to fck up the planet.

Depressing, but true.

Cartoon by Marc Roberts of Throbgoblins. Marc's cartoons will be featured in the magazine New Internationalist starting in October. Congratulations Marc!

Marc Roberts cartoon panel
Marc Roberts cartoon panel
Marc Roberts cartoon panel
Marc Roberts cartoon panel

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Meadow Brown

meadow brown butterflyWe took the kids up to Lyme Park and whilst they were running around bellowing I took some photos. They all came out rather under-exposed, so I'm going to have to figure out how to fix that. But apart from that I was quite pleased with this one of a meadow brown butterfly drinking nectar from a thistle.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Great Crested Newts

great crested newtI had a lovely picnic yesterday with my kids, my sister Stephanie and her kids, and our sister Lindsey. We all met up in Calderstones Park, Liverpool.

We had our picnic close to a small pool. My 6-year-old son, Sam, pointed out a plaque which said there were great crested newts in the pond. Great crested newts are a protected species in the UK and it's great to know that they are thriving there in the middle of Liverpool, although we didn't see any newts ourselves.

I got chatting to a woman who was tending a small memorial to her daughter who had died of cancer six years ago. There were some flowers planted around the base of a tree near the newt pond with a discreet plaque identifying the place where the young woman's ashes were scattered. The woman told me that sometimes she and her surviving daughters came and had a picnic together in this place so they could all be together again. I thought that sounded really nice.

But the woman expressed regret that the pond was in such such a bad state.
"They've let it go all stagnant," she said "It used to be clean and there were ducks here"
I got the feeling it spoiled their family get-togethers, this idea that the pond was neglected. So I pointed out the plaque and explained about the newts. I said that the pond wasn't stagnant - it wasn't covered in weed or algae and it didn't smell. It seemed to be well-tended because it didn't have any litter in it or around it. The water looked a little muddy, but presumably the newts liked it that way since they were reproducing here. There was another, larger lake in the park where the ducks lived, and it's a good thing there were no ducks in the newt pond because I guess the ducks might eat the newts and their larvae. I also pointed out a five-foot wooden sculpture of a newt amongst the trees by the pond.

By the end of our conversation the woman seemed much happier about the pond. It's a shame to think that there had been the least shadow over her daughter's memorial because she believed the pond was dirty and neglected. I'm glad I could help to lift that shadow, and I hope that the next time she and her other daughters get together there, they will discuss the rare newts in the pond. It's a beautiful little spot to spend eternity. I wouldn't mind being scattered somewhere like that myself when the time comes.

Great crested newt painting by Stephanie Smith

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Farmer's Market

Cheese VendorMy sister Stephanie is visiting and we went to a Farmer's Market together last Sunday. We bought some bread, some cheese, some pate, a sticky toffee pudding, some bacon, black pudding and sausages, some mutton pies, a chicken and some chocolate with crystallised orange. I always quiz the vendors about what the ingredients are and where they are sourced. I am looking for local produce hand-made with love and passion, and I walk away if I don't get satisfactory answers.

For example we talked to a bloke who made cheeses. He had samples of cheese we could taste, but Stephanie was blown away by the fact that he kept encouraging us to try another, and another. She was more used to the attitude "You can have a taste if you have to, but if you're not going to buy anything, get lost". This cheese guy wasn't desperate for us to buy anything, but he was excited about his cheese and keen to show it off. And rightly so - he made exceptionally beautiful cheese and we bought several different ones from him.

Over the last few days as we have eaten our way through our purchases we have talked about the difference between the food we bought at the farmer's market and food you buy at supermarkets. It really drives home how utterly dire supermarket food is. Even Tesco's so-called "Finest" range. Even "This isn't just food, this is Marks and Spencer's overpriced over-hyped food". It's all nasty in comparison to the real deal. The black pudding from the farmer's market was better by a long way than any black pudding I have ever eaten before. The sausages were divine. The sticky toffee pudding was much better than anything you can buy (but about the same as making it yourself). The mutton pies were beyond compare. We haven't had a duff item yet.

The downside is that farmers' markets are more expensive than supermarkets. And there is a lot in the news at the moment about soaring food prices here in the UK, which may harm farmer's markets as more people search for cheap food rather than quality food. But food is not yet really expensive. In fact food is still really really cheap and has been for decades. In a country where many poor people are overweight, you can see that food must be very cheap.

What is the role of farmer's markets? Are they just a luxury for the middle-classes? If you are really on the breadline, you won't be able to afford farmer's market prices. But I think many people on modest incomes could probably afford to buy great quality meat and cheese from the farmer's market by eating less meat and cooking more from scratch rather than eating ready meals. Of course some families already cook everything from scratch - Bean Sprouts readers probably do this more than most. I know that many Bean Sprouts readers already eat vegetarian at least once a week, which is a great strategy for reducing your food bills and allowing you to buy better quality meat because you are buying less of it. Why not visit your local farmer's market and compare the prices there with your usual supplier. Buy something there and compare the quality with your usual purchasers. Then you can make your own mind up whether it's worth it to your household to buy some things at the farmer's market instead. I've already made my mind up with regards to my household, and I think Stephanie has made her mind up too.