Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Rubbish Diet front pageRegular Bean Sprouts commenter 21st Century Mummy has a new blog - The Rubbish Diet. She's aiming to slim her bin to a size 0 by Zero Waste Week, commencing on 10th March 2008, and the blog is all about her family's quest to do just that.

As well as interesting and funny blog posts about her wheelie bin's weight loss programme, she also has a great collection of links to recycling and zero-waste websites. Check it out!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Scrap Quilt

sewing patchesMy scrap quilt is coming along nicely. It's not a quick project. Quick quilts inevitably mean large blocks and minimal sewing. Sewing lots of teeny tiny pieces inevitably takes a lot of time. It's a common trade-off. Usually being frugal takes more time. It takes longer to microwave a ready meal than to cook a meal from scratch.
Updated at 19:23 - of course I meant it takes longer to cook a meal from scratch than to microwave a ready meal. Doh!
But the home-cooked meal is cheaper, tastes better, is healthier and has less impact on the environment. Sometimes though time is at a premium (when you're busy making a patchwork quilt, for example), and ready meals become an attractive option. Ed made Hollands pies and oven chips for dinner the other night, so I didn't have to stop sewing to make something proper, and I was extremely grateful.

January Bird List

nuthatch sketchBirds I have seen from my house in January 2008:
  • Great tits
  • Starlings
  • Blue tits
  • House sparrows
  • Robins
  • Crows
  • Magpies
  • Blackbirds
  • Jays
  • Dunnocks
  • Wrens
  • Woodpigeons
  • Treeful of long-tailed tits (about 8 or so tits in an oak tree)
  • Great spotted woodpecker (only saw him once)
  • Gulls (dunno what sort, I don't do gulls)
  • Herons
  • Nuthatch (just saw him once, but he hung around for ages so I got a good look at him)
  • Chaffinch (male, I only saw one)
That's 18 species, which isn't bad for the middle of winter. I'll start a new list in February, and note which species I see again, which I don't see again, and any new species I spot.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Saoirse's Freeconomy Pilgrimage

Saoirse starting his pligrimageSaoirse, the chap who came up with the Freeconomy idea, begins a pilgrimage tomorrow from Bristol to Porbandar in India without any money. He'll be relying on the kindness and generosity of people who hasn't met yet to get about four-and-a-half-thousand miles.

I have no idea if he'll make it, but I'm interested to see if he does. I'm also curious to know what he'll have to do to make it work, and what we can learn from watching him, so I'll be following his journey on his blog.

I Believe...

Rebecca eating a dumblieI believe our leaders have become too short-sighted. Everywhere I look I see us creating problems for generations to come.

We are using up all the fossil fuel, so there will be none left for our children. And by burning the fossil fuel we are increasing atmospheric CO2 levels which will cause severe climate problems in our children's generation.

One proposed solution to this is to build nuclear power stations, which generate electricity with lower CO2 emissions. But there is still no good solution to the storage of nuclear waste containing isotopes with half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. And there are serious questions about the security of transporting and storing both waste and fuel rods now that international terrorism has become a fact of life.

The fuel companies have been pushing biofuels as a "green" alternative to fossil fuels. But from the beginning the green movement has been saying biofuels can never replace fossil fuels. For a start, even if we used every productive acre of arable land on Earth we could not grow enough biofuel to replace the fossil fuel we use at present. And anyway, if we used every productive acre of arable land on Earth, where would we get our food from? Most biofuel produced presently comes from palm oil, which is a whole bad kettle of fish.

Short-sightedness isn't just evident in our energy policies. Conventional farming methods which rely on over-use of pesticides and herbicides are killing our native plants and animals. Other conventional farming techniques such as over-ploughing and monoculture (producing the same crop year after year for mile after mile) cause unsustainable soil erosion. Conventional farmers compensate for this by adding artificial fertilisers. But when the soil is eroded completely our children or grandchildren will not be able to produce food by adding fertiliser to bare rock or sand.

Everywhere I look I see evidence of short-term thinking. The list would become too long and too political if I let all the bees out of my bonnet. The way we run our industries. The way we house our population. The way we fund our health service. The way we treat our children. The way we manage foreign affairs. They are all based on putting off problems until the future. Our children will have reason to damn us for the legacy we are leaving them. It makes me ashamed.

The Iroquois chiefs were required to make every decision by considering the effects on the seventh generation to come. I believe we urgently need to adopt this way of thinking. Urgently.

Monday, January 28, 2008

New Chickens

two red hensMy neighbour, Maria, came around yesterday to offer us two chickens. She has seven, and two of them don't get on with the other five, who bully them. She thought they might get on better with my two, since the numbers are equal. It's worth a shot.

She brought them round at dusk and we shoved them in the coop. The four sleepy chickens clucked softly at each other a bit, but soon settled down. By the time they were fully alert (well, as alert as chickens get) they had already been together 12 hours and so were somewhat familiar and less inclined to fight. They're a bit "This is our corner of the run and that can be your corner" but they're not actually battling each other. I think they'll be fine.

Maria says the new chickens are Rhode Island Reds. I'm no breed expert, but that looks about right to me. They hatched last April and so haven't been laying very long. A hen only has so many eggs in her before she stops laying, so it's good to get them young. Ours are a couple of years old now, and sooner or later they'll stop laying, although they're still very good layers and have laid all through this winter which is great.

I'm not expecting any eggs at all for a few days until the four of them settle in together, but then we should have 4 eggs a day, which is more than we eat. I plan to sell the surplus, to pay for the chicken feed. Then the eggs we eat will be free, in effect. Free eggs, free-range organic eggs as well. You can't complain about that.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Quilting Bug

quilt blocksI haven't done any patchwork and quilting for ages now, but the other day the bug bit me and I pulled out all my stash and spread it over the living room floor. I came across a bag of scraps, some of them only an inch square, given to me a while ago by friend. She and I had started sewing them into 6.5" square blocks, but I had put them away and done no more. I decided to resume this project.

In the last couple of days I have doubled the number of blocks, and have decided how I'm going to "set" the blocks (arrange them into a pattern). I know how big the finished quilt will be and who it is for (shhh, it's a secret). I don't know what I'm going to do about borders yet, and I've only got the vaguest idea about backing, and don't even ask me about the quilting until it's all put together.

It's a proper thrift quilt, made almost entirely from fabric I already have, left over from other projects. I'm going to have to buy the batting (stuffing) for it, but I hope I can do all the rest from my stash.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Big Garden Birdwatch

Big Garden Birdwatch logoThis weekend is the RSPB's annual Big Garden Birdwatch. You're asked to spend an hour watching birds in your garden and then submit your results to the RSPB, using their online recording sheet. Last year 400,000 people took part, which makes it the world's biggest bird survey. It's serious scientific research, providing valuable information about British birds:

The survey has recorded the huge declines in some of our most familiar birds. Since 1979, the number of house sparrows counted has fallen by 52% and the number of starlings by 76%.

However, it isn't all bad news - chaffinchs and great tits have both seen their numbers increase since 1979 by 36 and 52 per cent respectively.

Our scientists can then use these patterns in bird numbers to help prioritise our bird conservation work.

Why not spend an hour this weekend watching the birds, and help contribute to this vital research?

Cartoon from the talented and curiously attractive chaps at Climate Cartoons. Click on the panel to read the full strip.

Cartoon chocolate fireguard

Friday, January 25, 2008

Haiku Explained

winter treesA number of people have contacted me asking for an explanation of the haiku I was so impressed with. So I'll explain how I read it:

so suddenly winter - I took this at face value. The author has experienced a sudden onset of winter, perhaps waking up to find everything covered with snow, although the weather had been mild previously.

baby teeth at the bottom
of the button jar - I know from experience the poignancy of coming across baby teeth you've kept. It brings memories of the children when they were very young, and leads you to compare how big they are now, although it seems only yesterday you swapped these teeth for money "from the tooth fairy" and stored them carefully in the button jar.

Then I had an "aha" moment. In the light of the poignant baby teeth in the button jar, I re-evaluated the first line of the haiku "so suddenly winter". Perhaps the author isn't commenting on a sudden onset of wintry weather, but a sudden feeling of having become old, a sudden awareness of how long it is since these teeth were stored away.

And that's what made me catch my breath.

Now I look at the four paragraphs it took to explain that, and I know I will never write a good haiku. But I do enjoy reading them.

Get Started Growing Vegetables

I received an email from Hazel of Living and Mothering in the Chilly Northeast:

I've been promising Thomas (7) for ages we'd grow our own vegetables, I really couldn't face a completely new project last year as the baby was such hard
work so I told him *definitely* this year, and I haven't a clue where to

I have a little garden, about 7 foot by 25 foot or so, with a raised bed, unfortunately a lot of it is in the shade most of the day. I don't mind using some or all (eventually!) of it for vegetables.

Where do I start?! I have no experience of gardening we never did anything like that when I was a kid, I've tried putting in the odd flowering whatever since we moved here with varied success, the very hardy stuff made it the other stuff died!

Thanks for any input!
The two most important things to remember are 1) start small and 2) have early success. In other words don't set yourself up for failure. Make things easy for yourself.

Climate - You live in "the chilly Northeast" and your garden is in shade most of the day. That's going to be a tough place to grow vegetables. You can forget Mediterranean veg, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, tomatilloes, sweetcorn (not Mediterranean, but definitely hot climate) and so on. I wouldn't attempt herbs either, especially things like thyme and rosemary which are also Mediterranean plants, although we tend to forget it. To make allowances for your situation, add about a week to the earliest planting date on any packet of seeds you buy. If you have a sunny window ledge in your house you might get more success starting seeds in pots indoors, and only putting them in your garden when they are looking fairly big and healthy.

You don't mention your soil. Is is dark and crumbly and fertile? Does it drain well? Or is it sandy and poor, dusty and thin, clayey and heavy? Does it tend to get waterlogged and stand in little puddles? Now is your opportunity to get your soil sorted out before the growing season begins. You also don't say how big your raised bed is. Assuming it's not titchy, I'd start there.

Drainage - if your raised bed drains well, you can go on to the nest step. But if it tends to get waterlogged you need to sort that out. There should be a layer of rubble in the base of the bed, ideally covered with membrane to make sure the earth doesn't clog it up. Did you construct the bed yourself? Do you know what is in there? There should also be holes in the bottom course of brickwork (or whatever the bed is constructed from) to allow water to drain away. Make sure these holes are not blocked up.

Soil - Buy a load of well-rotted manure (not fresh manure - if you can get that, do so, but pile it up in a corner of the garden and let it rot for a year before you use it). Your local garden centre is a good place to start looking for well-rotted manure. Pull any weeds out of your raised bed, and their roots. For now, take the weeds off the site - your council may have a facility to compost them, but don't try to compost them yourself until you can identify perennial weeds from annual weeds, and you can build a compost heap that will get hot enough to kill seeds and diseases. Alternatively you could make them into weed tea, home-made plant food for your veggies. Fork the manure well into your raised bed - if the soil ends up standing in a heap in the middle of the bed, that's well and good. This will provide a naturally fertile growing medium for your crops.

Crops -Suitable crops for your situation (cold, shady) include
  • spinach
  • radicchio (a tasty salad leaf)
  • radishes (definitely grow these - they come up really fast and are trouble-free. They'll give you an encouraging taste of success. Such a shame they're not more useful, just a tasty addition to a salad rather than something you can build a meal around)
  • potatoes (can take a lot of space. Try them in a potato barrel instead of in your raised bed)
  • peas
  • runner beans
  • dwarf beans
  • parsnip
  • onions
  • lettuce (these actually prefer shade)
  • leeks
  • kale
  • garlic (don't try planting garlic from the greengrocer or supermarket - get it from a seed catalogue or a specialist seed garlic producer and look for cold-climate varieties)
  • chard
  • celery
  • cauliflower (will grow in your conditions but it's a tricky plant and not really good for a beginner)
  • carrots (if your raised bed is deep enough for them to put out long roots, otherwise go for a short or a spherical variety. The raised bed will be helpful in deterring the blasted cabbage root fly)
  • cabbages
  • Brussels sprouts
  • broccoli
  • beetroot
  • asparagus (it's a long-term project - if you establish a bed this year you'll begin really cropping in 2011)
Other - Do you have a water butt in your garden, so you can collect rainwater to water your crops? Do you have a compost heap to get rid of healthy plant material and kitchen waste, and turn it into extra fertility for your garden next year? Do you have a weed tea bucket?

When you've got more experience you can try branching out. You might want to try things I've said won't work. That's fine - you'll probably prove me wrong on some of them. And you might want to give over more of your garden to vegetables. You might even feel like getting a couple of chickens. But for your first season I'd stick to things that have a high chance of success.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Winter Haiku

I've been reading some books of poetry recently. I don't know very much about poetry; I can't tell a good poem from a bad poem. But sometimes when I read a poem it makes me catch my breath. This one did.

so suddenly winter
baby teeth at the bottom
of the button jar
--Carolyn Hall (Water Lines, Snapshot Press, 2006)

(found at Wikipedia's entry for Haiku)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


geodesic greenhouseIt's the time of year to make plans and dream big. Inspired by an Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast, I've fallen in love with these geodesic greenhouses. Geodesic structures are extremely cool, and it would be perfect in our north-facing garden because it catches solar energy from whichever direction it comes, not just from one long wall like a rectangular greenhouse. But I'm pretty sure I can make one myself without paying over a thousand pounds for a kit. I have some grand plans involving bamboo canes and polytunnel sheeting. Watch this space.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Moon After Yule

January full moonIt's a full moon tonight, but I doubt I'll see much of it as the sky is covered with a thick layer of cloud. It's a shame, as it's the first full moon of 2008 and I'd like to say "Hi". Never mind, there will be eleven more full moons this year.

You might want to collect your water for mead-making tonight. At my beekeeping course last night the instructor mentioned an old myth that mead (honey wine) should be made with water collected by moonlight. He joked that it must be the reason his mead didn't turn out well, and said he'd have to wait for the next full moon to collect his water. Obviously he didn't know it would be a full moon tonight, and I didn't tell him because I had already asked lots of questions about bee genetics and didn't want to be the annoying kid in the class who always has their hand up with some question or comment.

Thanks to Kerrdelune for the stunning photo.


Apparently it's been available on YouTube for about a year, and was made ten years ago, but I've only just stumbled across this amazing animated short film by Mark Osborne. It's beautiful, with an atmospheric soundtrack, and it's only 6 minutes long:

The Academy-Award®nominated animated short-film tells the story of a lonely inventor, whose colorless existence is brightened only by dreams of the carefree bliss of his youth.By day, he is trapped in a dehumanizing job in a joyless world. But by night, he tinkers away on a visionary invention, desperate to translate his inspiration into something meaningful.When his invention is complete, it will change the way people see the world. But he will find that success comes at a high price, as it changes himself, as well.

To me it says that there will never be a gadget that finally makes us happy, there is no gizmo waiting to be invented that will make our lives seem OK. The pursuit of technological answers to a humdrum stress-filled life is in fact what is making our lives stress-filled and humdrum. The real way to be happy is something you can't buy - after all, children know how even though they have no money, and even though they live in the same grey built environment we do.

But I suspect different people will read different messages in it, and that's what makes it such a powerful film. What does it mean to you?

Salad Days

dandelion and primrose saladIt's the middle of January. The excitement of Christmas and New Year has worn off, and there are still a couple of months of cold wintry weather to go. I'm sick of the rain. I'm sick of the gales. I'm sick of root vegetables and cabbage. So I curl up in an armchair with a selection of seed catalogues and choose what kinds of salad I'll be growing in 2008.

Salad leaves are a brilliant choice for a vegetable gardener. Have you seen the prices of those bags of mixed leaves in the supermarkets? You can save money by buying a lettuce from the greengrocer, but sometimes they're a bit limp, and anyway mixed salad is tastier than a heap of shredded cos. If you grow your own you get the best of all worlds - spanking fresh crisp salad, a selection of leaves, no food miles at all, and all for the cost of a packet of seeds.

I like the packets of mixed salad leaves you can get, so you get a variety of different flavours and colours. The important thing to remember is successional sowing. In other words, don't sow all the seeds in the packet at once, otherwise you'll suddenly have dozens of lettuces on your hands that you won't be able to eat before they go to seed, and then you'll have no lettuces at all. I mark out a line with sticks and string, then I sow a few seeds (you can't easily count them - salad seeds are typically very small). A week later I sow a few more, and thin out the plants that have started coming up. I do this once a week through the spring and summer for a continuous supply of salad leaves. If more lettuces come up than I can eat, I cut them anyway and give them to neighbours and friends. It's probably nonsense but I can't help feeling that when you allow plants to bolt it somehow encourages other plants nearby to bolt as well, and before you know it things are going to seed all over the garden. Have you noticed that?

Some salad varieties are good for "cut and come again". Instead of growing the plants until they form mature heads, you cut off the young leaves with scissors, and a new growth of leaves appears later from the base. You can get several crops from a single seed this way, you can sow them closer because they don't grow so big, and you don't need to worry about them bolting. Suitable varieties include chard, corn salad, endive, kale, land cress, sorrel and tatsoi.

Don't forget more unusual salad ingredients. Young dandelion leaves are delicious in a salad - they taste peppery, rather like rocket or watercress. When you pinch out the tops of your pea plants don't compost the tops. They're divine in a salad bowl, and in fact I saw bags of them in Tesco last year, but the price made me laugh. I grow spinach for cooking, but I also love to use the young leaves in a salad, especially a strong-flavoured salad with thinly-sliced red onion rings and perhaps the seeds from half a pomegranate, dressed with black pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Nasturtium leaves are good in a salad if you can wash all the blackfly off them, and the flowers are also edible. The leaves and flowers together make a really attractive salad. In fact a lot of young leaves can be used as salad greens, so whenever you're thinning out seedlings such as turnips, beetroot, radishes etc., why not have a little munch on some of the leaves and decide if you'd like to take the thinnings home for salad, rather than just composting them?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Alternatives to Freecycle

Freecycle is a worldwide network of local groups who keep useable second-hand goods out of the landfill by connecting people with unwanted stuff and people who want the stuff. It's a brilliant concept. When I first came heard of it someone told me it was "like eBay, but free". However some people have become unhappy with the way Freecycle groups work in practice.

It's OK though. There are lots of other groups where you can advertise your unwanted used stuff and people will come and take it away to use it again.

Realcycle is one example. They operate in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Like Freecycle, they use Yahoo Groups to manage the mailing list, which some people think is a bad thing. My local Freecycle group just switched to Realcycle. That group has over 15,000 members which is a good thing - obviously the more members there are, the more interesting items that get offered, and the more possible takers there are for the used items you want to offer.

Freesharing is another group that uses Yahoo Groups. They have over 825 local groups with over 350,000 members in the USA, Canada and around the world.

Sharing is Giving also uses Yahoo Groups. They have groups in the USA, Canada, and a small number of groups in Australia, Scotland, England and Wales.

Here are some other free recycling groups I have come across. I don't know anything about them, but if you are looking for alternatives to Freecycle, you might find something in this list.

Worldwide Free Share
Freesources Recycling Network
Reuses Network
Around Again
Full Circles
Recycle 4 Free
Staga Network
ReUseIt Network
FreeCycle Earth
Gift of Giving
Don't Dump That
Freecycle Australia
Texas Recycle Network
FreedomCycle (Connecticut)

Don't forget your local thrift/goodwill/charity shops if you have usable unwanted goods.

If you want to get rid of some books in a fun and environmentally responsible way, Bookcrossing is a really great way to do it. You leave a book in a public place - on a park bench perhaps - then you register the book with the bookcrossing website. An avid bookcrosser will come along shortly to pick up your book, and they may read it and post a review to the bookcrossing website, and maybe even leave it somewhere else for another bookcrosser to find. Or you could sell your unwanted books to your local second-hand bookshop.

If you have unwanted furniture, the Salvation Army might collect it to be reused by needy families. I know of various organisations near me who collect good used furniture for homeless people, victims of domestic abuse, asylum seekers and so on. There is a list of UK projects on the Sort It website.

If you don't want to give your used goods away but you don't want to throw them in the landfill, why not sell them on eBay or Craigslist?

The Sort-It website has more lists of places you can sell or give away unwanted used clothes, computer games, electrical appliances, bicycles and much more. So there's really no excuse to put serviceable stuff in the landfill. There are dozens of options for giving it away or selling it to be reused. What's more, you can probably find good second-hand alternatives to most of the things you might be thinking of buying new. And if you can't imagine why that would be a good idea - you need to go and watch The Story of Stuff.

A German Requiem

St George's Singers rehearsingThe choir I sing with, St George's Singers, had a singing day yesterday. We have one every year. Anyone who wanted could come along and spend a whole day learning Brahms' German Requiem from scratch, then give a performance in the evening with professional soloists and accompaniment in front of a paying audience.

Last year we did Orff's Carmina Burana, and both my sisters came to sing. This year only Stephanie could make it for the singing day, but Lindsey and her husband Andrew came to the performance. It was great fun as always, although it's not my favourite work, with long dull stretches between the moving or exciting bits. Sam came to the concert too, and sat with Lindsey and Andrew. He said he liked all of it, so he obviously didn't find it dull. Maybe it's just me.

See how the husbandman waiteth
for the precious fruit of the earth,
and hath long patience for it,
until he receive the early and latter rain.
So be ye patient.

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

climate cartoons chocolate fireguard bali

Friday, January 18, 2008

I Chickened Out

Chicken Out! Campaign Sign-up
I have had a few complaints about the noisy image on the Chicken Out! story I posted last week. I too hate websites that make noises, so I habitually run my laptop with the sound turned off. That's why I didn't even notice at first that the banner played annoying clucks and dings and sirens. So sorry about that.

I've deleted the noisy image and replaced it with a silent one. I promise never to add noises to Bean Sprouts again. And I promise to run my laptop with sounds enabled whilst editing Bean Sprouts so I won't get any more nasty surprises, and neither will you.

Still, it's a good campaign and I hope Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall achieves his aim to inform the British public about the horrors of intensive poultry farming. Why don't you follow the link and take a look? But turn off your speakers first.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bubble and Squeak

bubble and squeakMy dad went back to Ireland last night after a month-long stay with us. It's nice to get my house back to myself, nice not to have to be on "best behaviour" and consider the needs of another person all the time. But I miss him already. The weather is dark and cold and wet and blowy here, and the weatherman says it's going to stay like that for several days at least. I'm tired. I have a bit of a headache. I badly need some comfort food.

Last night I made a special meal for the last dinner of dad's visit. We had big Yorkshire puddings the size of plates, filled with mashed potatoes and good sausages and roast butternut squash and gravy. There are leftovers of all those things in the fridge, except the Yorkshire pudding. I decide to make some bubble and squeak, or ca'ad waarmed up as it's called in the North East of England.

I put some butter in a big frying pan and when it is melted I add the leftover veggies and chopped up cooked sausage. The ingredients don't matter - there should be something potatoey, and ideally something cabbagey and something meaty, but you can make it with any leftovers at all. I press the ingredients down with the back of a wooden spoon and let them fry until I think they have started to go brown on the bottom. Then I stir it all up again, press it down, and leave it again. I keep doing this until it is hot all through, with brown bits mixed up with the rest of it. It smells indescribably fantastic - one of the best smells in the world. But you have to be patient. Bubble and squeak isn't just reheated leftovers. What would be so great about that? It's the caramelised golden bits that make it irresistible.

When it is hot all through, with brown (really quite dark brown - be brave. If a few bits are actually black that's no bad thing) bits all through, I press it down one final time and leave it in the pan. This is the test of your nerve. You have to leave it until the bottom is brown and slightly hardened. Soft mashed potato and squash and sausages are transformed into an object that can hold itself together when you turn it out onto the plate. You can't see when it's ready, you just have to judge the right time to hold the plate over the pan, then quickly flip them over so the bubble and squeak falls onto the plate in a beautiful round brown cake.

Mine doesn't do that. To be honest, it rarely does. Usually something sticks and needs scraping out of the pan. It doesn't matter. It tastes delicious either way. I eat mine in front of the TV with a pot of tea.

This is health food. Yes it is. It is. It's mental health food. I feel better, anyway.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

If We Build It, They Will Come

cat flapI want a cat, but Ed isn't so sure. Then my friend Guy pointed out that I don't need to get a cat, I just need to get a cat flap. Someone I used to work for believed that there was a cat god who sends cats to people who really need them. So now we have a cat flap. If we build it, they will come.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's Up With Freecycle?

Freecycle logoOne of my local Freecycle groups has schismed and become a Realcycle group instead. In case you don't know, Freecycle is a network of local groups where people can offer unwanted but usable items free to anyone who wants to collect them - I use it to get free used items, such as books, fabric, and a freezer, and also to give away things I no longer need but which may be useful to other people such as a piano, furniture, and clothes. It's a brilliant idea, and it works really well. I've been using it for a couple of years now. But some people are unhappy with it.

One problem is to do with The Freecycle Network accepting a sponsorship deal with a waste management firm. I've recently watched all of The Sopranos straight through, but I don't think it's that sort of "waste management firm". Even so, some people are unhappy with this sponsorship deal, and view it as "selling out". Other people are unhappy with what they see as nepotism within The Freecycle Network, whilst still others are unhappy with the wRealcycle logoay the Network has demanded that other organisations change their names because they think it might infringe their trademark. There are also accusations of heavy-handed behaviour towards groups and moderators who, it is claimed, don't comply with the proper way of doing things.

I must say I don't really understand it all and I have no idea of what is at the bottom of it. Maybe the boss people at Freecycle are power-hungry nepotistic control freaks who have sold out to corporate sponsorship. It happens. Or maybe some of the people who are complaining are paranoid over-sensitive hippies who destroy the good things they helped to build. I've seen that before, too. Honestly, I don't know what the truth is. If you want to dig a bit deeper yourself, you could start by looking at FreeRRRs blog, Tim Oey's blog, or GreenRibbon.

Still, I believe that diversity is good, and the good news is there are now quite a lot of different ways you can freely recycle your unwanted goods. Realcycle is one of them. I'll tell you about some others soon.

Beekeeping Course

two National beehivesLast night I went to the first evening of the local Introduction to Beekeeping course. I tried to sign up for this in the autumn of 2006, but was told it was already full. So instead I went on a two-day course in Keele which was excellent, and gave me the confidence to get two colonies of bees last summer.

But I still wanted to go on this more in-depth course, which has nine two-hour theory lectures in February and March, and six hands-on sessions in May and June.

It was a good lecture last night - I learned some things I didn't know about bumblebees, and I got to meet some other local novice and would-be beekeepers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bird Flu

chickens in runDefra have confirmed that three wild mute swans in Dorset died from the H5N1 strain of bird flu. As a keeper of backyard chickens, I have a keen interest in stories of bird flu in the UK. There have been a few outbreaks which have so far been contained. But the odds are that sooner or later it will become a widespread bird disease in Britain and we will have to learn to live with it.

I'm not too worried. From my experience with beekeeping I know that we can learn to manage animal disease. The bee parasite varroa destructor came to Britain in 1992, and you can pretty much say that every bee colony in the country is now infected. But all British beekeepers now know how to monitor and control the mite to minimise the damage it does.

Of course varroa causes no harm to humans, but H5N1 bird flu has infected several hundred people worldwide since 2003, and killed almost 2/3 of them. All those infected have caught the disease from close contact with infected birds, but it mutates very quickly and scientists fear that it could mutate to a form that passes easily from human to human.

All UK poultry keepers, even people like me who only have a couple of backyard chickens, should be ready to confine them indoors if necessary, somewhere the birds can live humanely for as long as need be, out of all contact from wild birds. My chickens have a palatial coop with checky red curtains and it would be no trouble to keep the door to the run permanently shut if bird flu was detected in our area. If that ever happened, I would stop the kids from having contact with the chickens, and I would take additional hygeine precautions myself when feeding the chickens, cleaning their coop and collecting eggs. If need be I'm ready to slaughter them, or take them to be slaughtered. It would be very sad, but it might have to happen so I'm ready for it. But for now I don't need to do anything special. It's a theoretical risk, something that might happen in the future but it hasn't happened yet.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Review: Food Not Lawns

Food Not LawnsThey say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. You shouldn't judge it by its title, either. I spent the first half of Heather Flores' Food Not Lawns feeling rather frustrated at the lack of direct advice about turning your lawn over to food production. Instead the book is a rambling diatribe expounding the author's position on a variety of environmental, social, and spiritual topics. By the time I got to the end of it, I felt it had some interesting ideas in it but it really needed a different title. If you want to turn your lawn into a veg plot this isn't the book for you. At least, it's not the only book you'll need.

The mismatch between the title and the content of the book is continued in the chapters. Chapter one is titled "Free Your Lawn". Sounds like it's about freeing your lawn, perhaps to grow food, doesn't it? Instead it mainly contains the author's biography. The titles of chapters and sections don't necessarily give you much clue what the section is about. The chapter titled "Ecological Design" is mainly about a sort of mandala she calls a "spiral design wheel" which has "look deep" at the centre, and opens out through layers with names such as "let autonomy reign" and ends up with "COSMOS - SOCIETY - WILDERNESS - SELF - CHAOS" etc. It was all too hippy-dippy even for me, and I have a high hippy-dippy tolerance cut-off. I laughed out loud when she described her admiration for John Jeavons' "How to Grow More Vegetables", another book I couldn't get away with because it was too rambling, vague and hippy-dippy.

I'm glad I read Food Not Lawns because it does contain some interesting ideas. My favourite bits of the book were nothing to do with veg growing, but were about getting involved in your local community through activities such as seed swaps. The section about remembering to include children was also great. I wish I'd read the book with a highlighter pen so I could have marked the bits I liked. If I ever want to find them again, it'd be like wading through treacle.

If you like mandalas, yoga and community theatre this might be the book for you. If you think digging a deep hole, standing in it, then getting a friend to bury your feet and legs and then water you whilst you;
...raise your arms to the sky and imagine your leaves and branches unfolding, expanding towards the heavens. Close your eyes and imagine blooming, setting seeds, wilting, and returning to the earth.

will help you become more attuned to the mystic cosmic wossname, then you might like this book. I didn't like it so much. I prefer The Vegetable and Herb Expert by Dr D.G.Hessayon

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Chicken Out!

Chicken Out! Campaign Sign-up

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (the only TV chef I can bear for more than a few seconds) is campaigning about the wretched conditions of battery chickens. It's a topic dear to my heart. On Hugh's Chicken Out campaign website he says:

I feel so strongly about our chickens that I'm launching a national campaign, which I'm calling Chicken Out! Part of it will be a new TV series on Channel 4, which will help you to understand the conditions in which most table birds are reared, and to put pressure on the industry to raise its standards. Chicken Out! is being led by River Cottage locals, especially in and around Axminster, who are boycotting intensively-reared chickens and choosing free range instead. I need you to do the same.

You can go to the Chicken Out website and sign up to the campaign. But most of all you can stop buying battery farmed chicken and eggs.

I buy chicken very rarely, but when I do I get a proper free range organic corn fed chicken from the butcher in the village. It's not cheap, but I don't expect it to be. I don't expect steak to be cheap either, it's a luxury food. I think of chicken that way now. As a delicious luxury item to have once in a while, to prepare lovingly and enjoy. By God, my roast organic corn fed free range chicken tastes fabulous. You can't say that for a £2 battery bird. And it usually gives my at least three meals - roast meat one day, stir fry or something with the leftovers the next day, and soup made out of the carcase on day three. So it's really not that expensive after all.

And if you want to be absolutely certain about the quality of your eggs, and save money, and enjoy a taste of the good life, why not keep a few chickens yourself. For years I wished I had space for a few chickens. When I finally took the plunge, I realised that almost every house we've ever lived in had more than enough space for chickens. They really need very little room, and they're very little trouble. If you could keep a rabbit, you could keep a chicken. For more information about keeping backyard chickens, start here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Braun Blender Good As New

My 50-year-old Braun food processor needed a new part, and Braun can no longer supply it. So I took it to a local precision engineering firm and asked them if they could make the part I needed. I collected it today, and it's as good as new.

Dad brought a very posh Kenwood food processor for me to use over Christmas. I'm very glad he did - it really lightened the load. But now I'll be happy to hand it over to my sister Stephanie and use my old Braun instead. In another 50 years' time, the Kenwood will be long dead, because they deliberately make consumer gadgets to break down frequently. But I believe there's every chance my Braun will still be going strong, because it was made before they thought of planned obsolescence, when things were still built to last.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Recycled Briquettes

Steph making a briquetteI've been playing with the briquette maker Santa brought me for Christmas. We've made several briquettes, and some of them are now dry enough to burn on the fire. We tried one last night and it burned for well over an hour, just as the packaging claimed. I was surprised because I had been rather cynical about the claim. But the proof of the pudding and all that, so I can definitely say they do exactly what it says on the tin. Useful home heating fuel from waste paper and cardboard. Thanks, Santa.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Pink Dresser

pink dresser Steph has gone home. Dad is still here for another week and a half. We had loads of fun whilst she was here - yesterday we all went bowling with our other sister Lindsey and her husband Andrew. Then we all had dinner at a pub and had a whale of a time playing the "yes no" game. Then after we put the kids to bed, Steph and I headed out again to a Twelfth Night party thrown by some friends of mine (Hi to Sylvia and Ted if you're reading this!).

Here is a photo of the dresser Ed made to Steph's design, using mostly materials we had in the shed. We had to buy a sheet of hardboard for the back, and some cuphooks (not yet installed) so the whole piece cost us just over £3. I love it enormously and it makes me smile whenever it catches my eye. I needed some shelves to store a few items that tend to clutter up the kitchen. And I knew I wanted it to be a "funky" colour, rather than a "tasteful" colour. It had to be painted rather than woodstained, to hide the fact that some of the shelves are pine, and some are MDF whilst the back is made of hardboard.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Steph's Here

Steph has come for a few days. As usual we are having lots of fun, and being extremely busy. We're making a shelving unit for the kitchen entirely out of bits of wood, paint etc. we already had in the shed. She also persuaded me to restart my monthly bird watching lists. She helped me to make some recycled paper briquettes. We went to the antique/junk shop and bought a lovely glazed pot with a lid for my sourdough starter. It's much more attractive than having a scary monster in a cup on the windowsill with nasty plastic wrap over the top, and as it's second hand that's better than buying something new just for the purpose. We made ice cream containing coconut milk, and a delicious thai curry to use up the leftover coconut milk from the ice cream. And last night we lit a fire in the fireplace and drank sherry and sat reading books from my Christmas pile and reading out funny or interesting bits to each other and then discussing them.

I'll show you photos of some of these activities when I get a chance to upload them to the computer. But I'm just typing this update in a few minutes I grabbed between other things.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Recycled Bird Feeder

A friend of mine from a Usenet group, Ivan Reid, invented a quick and easy recycled bird feeder using a Pringles tin and a sardine can. There are instructions of how to make it on his webpage.

He says the design has been slightly refined over the years:
You might want to note that it finally succumbed to the elements after about 2-1/2 years. Also it's very windy in my backyard and I kept losing the cap off the top, so I cut the top off a 1-1/2 litre mineral-water bottle just below the neck and slipped that over the top to keep the rain out.

I like it a lot. Of course, it's not exactly a thing of beauty. But I don't put out birdfeeders to adorn the garden. I put them out to attract the birds, which are more beautiful than any garden ornament.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Rechargeable Battery Challenge

battery rechargerIt's the same every Christmas. The kids get a bunch of new toys that all need batteries. But batteries are evil. Worldwide, 15 billion batteries are thrown away every year. They take around 50 times more energy to manufacture than they give out, so it's far better to run appliances from the mains whenever possible. They contain all kinds of nasties such as lead, mercury and cadmium (depending on the type of battery). If they have this symbol on the packaging:
no hg(even if the letters below are different) then it's illegal to put them in the household waste - they must be recycled by UK law. Not that anyone does - fewer than 2% of batteries are recycled. But at least it means your local authority should have a scheme for you to recycle used batteries.

It's not realistic for most of us to avoid battery-powered devices all the time. So a battery recharger is an excellent investment. According to the website Battery Logic UK:

If you were to buy, for example, the Uniross X-Press 300 Charger for £12.99 including four NiMH rechargeable batteries,which can be recharged a thousand times, recharge the batteries five times, then as if by magic - you've got your money back!. (5 x £3= £15 which is what you would have spent on throwaway batteries). The next 995 charges are essentially FREE batteries. You could also save 3996 batteries from the landfill site over the lifetime of your Uniross rechargeable batteries!

Feel free to forget the sums. It's simple. Rechargeable x 1000 = Battery Logic : kind to your pocket - kind to the environment.

So that's the challenge for January. Get a battery recharger and use it. Oh, and recycle your disposable batteries as they run out. Don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar when you've done it.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Hourly Pay Challenge Results

Last month I challenged Bean Sprouts readers to calculate their hourly pay. The reason for doing this is that it allows you to convert any purchase into hours-at-work, instead of pounds or dollars or whatever. You can immediately see how many hours you had to work to pay for a tank full of petrol, or a Nintendo Wii, or a lunch at Starbucks.

42 people voted in the poll, and their votes broke down as follows:

  • I've gone green! I've calculated my hourly pay! 15 (35%)
  • I was already green! I already knew my hourly pay! 21 (50%)
  • I don't want to! I'd rather not know my hourly pay! 3 (7%)
  • I'm greener than thou! I operate in a non-cash economy! 3 (7%)
If you know your hourly pay, and if you know how much extra money you spent over Christmas (neither of these have to be to the exact penny, just a rough idea) you can figure out how many hours at work it will take to pay off your Christmas spend. I wonder if that will be a scary calculation or a pleasant surprise?

There will be a new challenge posted for January soon.

Happy New Year

fireworksHappy New Year, Bean Sprouts readers! Welcome to 2008!

I love new beginnings. A blank piece of paper. A brand-new notebook. A newborn baby. A freshly-tilled plot of earth. I love the sense of infinite possibilities, the opportunity to create something wonderful.

I wonder what 2008 will bring? A mixture of good things and bad, I expect. In twelve months' time, as we stand at the threshold of 2009, I wonder what I will say about the year just past? Will I say "Roll on 2009, I can't wait to put 2008 behind me"? Or will I say "Well, if 2009 is even half as good as 2008, we'll count ourselves lucky indeed"?

It's a totally arbitrary boundary, the ending of one calendar year and the start of another. It's not like a new moon, or a solstice, or a dawn. But embedded in our own culture as we are, it feels like it means something. Like a birthday means something, or Christmas means something. As if the fireworks that filled the sky at midnight were a natural phenomenon rather than a human activity. And as the sun rises this morning it seems like the world is new made, and we all have an opportunity to start again and create something wonderful.