Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Make A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul

I've been watching a bluetit carrying nesting materials to the birdhouse in our back garden. Hopefully he'll attract a mate and raise a clutch of chicks like last year. Here are some images I found when searching for "recycled bird house". Each image is a link to the page it comes from. Some of them have instructions how to make the item, some are ready-made items for sale, and some are out-of-date and no longer for sale, but I thought they could be inspiration for your own recycled bird house projects.edible bird house
bottle-top bird house

circuit-board birdhouse

for-sale sign birdhouse

juice bottle birdhouse

recycled birdhouse

If you make a recycled bird house, please email me a photo, and say whether you're happy for your image to be used on the blog.

School Banner

School Banner Here is the banner Steph helped me sew together for the kids' school. Eleanor is making her first holy communion this month, and each member of her class painted a sacrament-related design onto a 1' square of fabric. The teacher asked me to assemble all 30 squares into a banner.

Eleanor's SquareEleanor's square is the second from the right on the top row. It's a funky-looking yellow bird representing the Holy Spirit, with multicoloured embellishments and glitter. Here it is enlarged. Eleanor always uses colour lavishly in her paintings. Years ago all her class coloured in angels at Christmas time. Most of the children used tasteful combinations of white, silver and gold to colour their angels. Eleanor coloured hers with stripes using every pen in the set; hers was a groovy rainbow hippy angel.

At the end of the school year, the banner will be cut up and each child will take their artwork home. I wonder if I'll be asked to hem all 30 squares? Probably.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Zen and the Art of Mowing the Lawn

Sam's ScarecrowWhen I got the lawnmower out for the first time this year I had to spend half an hour cleaning the grass that was firmly glued to every surface. Last year was a horrible washout and we eventually had to mow the lawn when it was wet, because it never dried out at all and it would have been knee-high if we hadn't mowed it sometime. The wheels of the mower ground up the spongy, waterlogged soil, damaging the lawn. The wet grass didn't cut very well, especially the tough stalks which had developed in the long period between mowing. The soggy grass cuttings stuck to all parts of the lawnmower and were difficult to clean off; eventually we gave up trying. Mowing the lawn in 2007 was a miserable experience.

But last Saturday, ah, that's a different story. I had forgotten the simple pleasure of cutting the lawn with a properly functioning mower on a warm dry day. The hum of the mower, the delicious sharp smell of the cut grass, the birdsong in the distance, the heat of the sun on my back. I felt as though I could have mowed forever. Then sitting down with a cold glass of beer afterwards and surveying a job well done. Heaven must be just like this.

It was during this "surveying" period that I noticed various nasty holes and patches in the lawn. Sam helped me fork out the weeds and moss, prepare the soil surface, and sow some new grass seed to fill the gaps. On Monday he brought home a small scarecrow he had made at school. There was really only one place to put it. Sam's scarecrow stands in the middle of the front lawn, deterring any birds who might want to eat our grass seed before it grows.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Slow Cooker v Pressure Cooker - Similarities

pressure cookerI recently wrote a comparison of the an article comparing the nutrient content of food cooked in a pressure cooker and a slow cooker, prompted by Clare of Veg Box Recipes blog who was confused because:

Both claim that their method preserves the highest number of nutrients and gives maximum flavour.

Can they both be right?

I found that unfortunately there isn't really any hard data about the nutrients. But what about taste?

I find them to be quite similar in this respect. They're both good for casseroles and soups. Everything you put in the pot ends up tasting the same. Flavours merge; for example, if you put a quartered chicken, a few vegetables, and some stock, red wine and herbs in the pot, the chicken will end up tasting of vegetables, the vegetables will end up tasting of chicken, and everything will be infused with the flavour of red wine and herbs. This is true of both pressure cooking and slow cooking.

Another thing they both have in common is that (depending on the timing) everything becomes very tender. Even cheap, tough cuts of meat become drop-off-the-bone tender, and even woody vegetables like parsnips become about-to-collapse soft.

Finally, they are both cheaper than conventional cooking methods. The slow cooker is cheaper because it draws very little electricity, and even though it is left on for several hours it is comparable to leaving a conventional lightbulb on for several hours, a very different proposition from running an electric oven for several hours. The pressure cooker is cheaper because it only runs for a few minutes, or a few tens of minutes at most, and it runs on the hob. Again this is obviously a lot cheaper than cooking a casserole in your oven for a few hours.

There will be two more articles in this series comparing pressure cookers and slow cookers. The next article will look at differences between the two methods, and the final article will include some of my favourite recipes for them. If you would like to share your favourite recipes, please email them to me. I'd particularly like to hear vegetarian recipes, and recipes that aren't for soups or casseroles.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Eco-Friendly Web Resources

My sister, Stephanie, found a chart of UK seasonal food, showing what food is in season each month. I like it because it not only lists fruit and vegetables but also meat and fish. Steph has printed it out and stuck it up in her kitchen, I think that's a great idea.

I also found a website with PDFs of lots of different kinds of free printable paper, such as graph paper (in about a bazillion different grid sizes), dotted paper, lined paper, handwriting paper, musical manuscript paper, all available for A4, letter size and legal size. It's got to be frugal and more environmentally-friendly to print out just a few pages of Graph Paper with ten lines per inch and heavy index lines on letter-sized paper rather than to buy a whole pad of the stuff. And I use recycled printer paper (and often use both sides) - where are you going to find Dot Paper with four dots per inch on A4-sized paper on recycled paper? (Via rec.crafts.textiles.quilting)

Finally, there's a new blog about growing fruit in pots. I like it because it helps bring a little bit of self-sufficiency to people who don't have a five-acre smallholding. It's quite young, but there is already some super photography there, and good information about pest-control and recycling. I'll be keeping my eye on it.

I'll Be Just Fine, Says Planet

The EarthFunny story from the satirical website The Daily Mash.

The Earth spoke out after a series of books, television programmes and environmental campaigns urged people to do everything in their power to 'Save the Planet'.

Earth, 4,000,000,000, said last night: "I'll be absolutely fine, seriously. I might get a bit warmer and a bit wetter, but to be honest, that actually sounds quite nice."

The planet said environmental campaigners should change their slogan from 'Save the Planet' to something more relevant such as 'Save Your Sorry Arse'.

As you may have spotted, the article contains some swearing. That said, if you want to read the whole story it's here: I'LL BE JUST FINE, SAYS PLANET

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

Tony Blair Global Warming Envoy cartoon strip

Saturday, April 26, 2008

10 Reasons to Cook with Quorn

Quorn Chicken Style PiecesThere are only four days left to participate in our Try A Vegetarian Meal Challenge. If you are running out of inspiration, here are ten good reasons to try a Quorn dish:

1. You can get Quorn chunks (which are rather like chunks of chicken), Quorn mince (which is like beef mince) and Quorn beef-style strips (which are self-explanatory).

2. Point 1. means that you can easily make many of your favourite meat-based recipes vegetarian. We like Quorn chili, Quorn lasagna, Quorn fajitas and Quorn Thai green curry, for example.

3. You can offer a vegetarian and non-veggie choice without all the trouble of making two totally separate meals, for example by making rice, Thai green curry sauce with vegetables, then pouring half the sauce over some heated Quorn chunks and the other half over cooked chicken pieces.

4. Quorn sausages make nice sausage casseroles, as well as bangers and mash, toad-in-the-hole, and Ed's favourite - sausage sandwiches.

5. Quorn is much lower in fat than the meat it imitates, so it can be a healthier option, especially as, just like meat, it contains high-quality protein.

6. Unlike meat, Quorn contains fibre which also makes it a good addition to a healthy diet.

7. Because it is similar in taste and texture (not identical, but similar) to meat, it can help die-hard carnivores cut some of the meat out of their diets. You know, the sort of people who would sooner starve than knowingly eat a lentil.

8. Because you use it in the same sorts of recipes as meat, you don't have to learn a whole lot of new cooking skills (such as how to cook lentils).

9. Quorn is lower in calories than meat and contains no cholesterol. So if you're watching your weight or your cholesterol levels you can still enjoy some of your favourite meals just by switching to Quorn.

10. Boil some water and cook some spaghetti. Fry an onion, add a tin of tomatoes, a pack of Quorn mince, and some Italian mixed herbs. By the time the spaghetti is cooked, the sauce will be cooked, too (Quorn is already cooked, it just needs heating through). If you've got some Parmesan cheese, put that on top. If not, just forget it. Quorn spaghetti bolognese is just as quick as heating up a ready meal - much quicker than phoning for pizza delivery - and it's tastier and healthier than either.

What is Quorn anyway? It's made from a fungus that occurs naturally in soil. Sometimes it's described as "mushroom-based" - that's stretching it a bit. The fungus it's made from is a microscopic mould, not a mushroom like the ones you put in your omelette. On the other hand I've heard detractors describe it as genetically modified - that's not "stretching it a bit", it's just hooey. The FAQ page of the Quorn website states clearly:
Q: Do Quorn products contain genetically modified ingredients?

A: The main component of all Quorn products is mycoprotein, which is not soya-based, but is a member of the mushroom family. This is grown and harvested under strict quality controls and we can therefore reassure you that it is not a product of genetic manipulation.

Quorn is approved by the Vegetarian Society who do not allow any GM ingredients in approved foods, so that's that. Anyway, they grow this stuff in huge vats, dry it out, then process it, adding egg white (as a binder) and flavours to make it resemble chicken, mince, sliced ham, or whatever. It's a processed food, but then again so is cheese.

It occurs to me that this article reads like an advert, so I'll just be clear. I have no affiliation to Quorn. They haven't paid me or asked me to write this or anything fishy like that. I'm just a satisfied customer. We probably eat Quorn about once a week in our house. The main reason is that it bridges the gap between the carnivores and the vegetarians in our family. If it was just up to me, I'd probably never eat it - when I felt like chicken fajitas I'd eat chicken, and when I felt like a vegetarian meal I'd make dishes based on beans, lentils, quinoa and all the other vegetarian protein sources I enjoy. I resisted using Quorn for a long time because it felt like cheating. It's not "natural", it's a factory-made processed food. But so is cheese, so is tofu, so is bread unless you make it at home. When I gave in I found that a lot of new dinner possibilities opened up to me. Instead of reading a recipe and thinking "That sounds really nice, but it contains meat. I'll have to wait till Steph visits and make it for the two of us", now I often read a recipe and think "That sounds really nice. I'll switch the chicken for Quorn and make it for me and Ed next week".

So it's your last chance to join in the Try A Vegetarian Meal Challenge. Why not try converting your favourite chicken or mince-based dish to Quorn? Don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar when you've done it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Little Black Flies on Houseplants

yellow sticky trap for sciarid fliesDo you ever get those nasty little black flies on your houseplants? Clouds of the buggers fly up whenever you disturb the plant. They're really gross.

They're called sciarid flies, fungus gnats or mushroom flies. And you've only yourself to blame; they eat rotting vegetable matter, such as the rotting roots of your chronically over-watered houseplants. The flies don't do any damage to your plant. If an infected plant dies it's usually from the over-watering that attracted the gnats in the first place. The flies are the symptom, not the cause.

Fortunately, the treatment is simple and completely organic. First of all let the poor old plant dry out. It won't harm the plant to do this, in fact it will probably do it a power of good. But mainly you're trying to disrupt the gnats' life cycle. The eggs take about a week to hatch, so if you can keep the soil dry for a couple of weeks you should be able to kill the already-hatched larvae by desiccating them, any larvae that hatch from the eggs after a week will also desiccate, and the adults will have no rotting roots to feed on so they should die too. So you can see that two weeks of dryness should sort the problem out.

If you feel you need an extra line of attack you could get some sticky yellow traps from your garden centre. I don't think they have a proprietary name, just ask for "sticky yellow fly traps for houseplants". These attract the flies - apparently it's the yellow colour that attracts them, not any chemical or scent or anything. And the stickiness is just glue that sticks the flies down and traps them - there's no pesticide in the traps. So this is an organic approach that should help get rid of the nasty little blighters.

Once you've eliminated the flies you might want to put a physical barrier on top of the soil to deter them coming back. An inch-thick layer of sand or fine gravel will prevent females from laying their eggs in the soil.

Finally - STOP OVER-WATERING YOUR POOR PLANTS! Always feel the soil before you water them and if the soil is moist then don't add any more water. Don't let the plant sit in a saucer full of water all day, or worse still for days and days. If there is water in the saucer half an hour after watering, pour it away. Different plants need different watering regimes, so don't water all your plants at the same time. If your moisture-loving Boston fern is looking crinkly round the edges then give it a drink, but you shouldn't water your drought-tolerant Easter cactus at the same time every time. Plants in great big pots need less frequent watering than plants in little pots, although obviously they need more water each time.

Good luck with the sciarid flies, if you have them. And if you don't, give yourself a pat on the back for not over-watering your plants.

Slow Cooker v Pressure Cooker - Nutrients

slow cookerClare of Veg Box Recipes blog is confused about the advantages of slow cookers compared to pressure cookers. Specifically she is confused because:

... the proponents of both pressure cookers and slow cookers claim their method is the best way of cooking food. Both claim that their method preserves the highest number of nutrients and gives maximum flavour.

Can they both be right?

I dunno, Clare. I see the source of your confusion - one cooks really fast, the other cooks really slow. They seem like opposites, so how can they both be the best?

Some nutrients are destroyed by heat, which suggests that slow cookers (which cook at below boiling point) might preserve more nutrients than pressure cookers (which cook at much higher than boiling point, made possible because of the increased pressure). On the other hand, the slow cool cooking process in a slow cooker can lead to loss of nutrients through enzyme action. These enzymes would normally be denatured by cooking, but because it takes longer for a slow cooker to reach the temperature at which that happens, the enzymes have longer to destroy the nutrients.

So where does that leave us? Nowhere, to be honest. I can't find any data comparing the nutrient content of slow cooked v pressure cooked food. If you know of any reliable data I'd love to hear about it. Otherwise all I can offer is an item of faith - a home-cooked meal from fresh ingredients is likely to contain more nutrients than any ready-meal or fast-food meal, regardless of the cooking method.

I have more to say about slow cookers and pressure cookers, so look out for other articles to come. I'd also love to hear (and maybe try) your favourite pressure and slow cooker recipes. Please email me with recipes or hard facts about nutrients.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spring Poetry

spring leaves

A bit of an old chestnut, this (ha ha), but a splendid poem nevertheless.

Philip Larkin - The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Hoverfly on a Marsh MarigoldIt was a beautiful spring day here yesterday - bright and still, although cold. So I put on a warm coat and scarf and took lots of photos. I was pleased with this one of a hoverfly.

Hoverflies deliberately mimic bees and wasps which fools some people who can't tell them apart. My kids get in a panic when one comes near them. I always tell them "If it's hovering, it's a hoverfly". Bees and wasps don't hover like that. This one was stationary on a marsh marigold flower, but it was still easy to tell what it was. The biggest clue is the eyes. Flies have fly eyes. Bee and wasp eyes are different. Here's a nice closeup of a hoverfly's head. And here's a worker bee head for comparison. The feelers are another giveaway - bees have long busy feelers, flies have short stubby ones. Another giveaway is the wings. Flies have two wings; the Latin name for the order is diptera which means "two wings". Bees always have four. And it's clearly not a wasp as it has a fat waist, not a wasp waist. I don't have a wasp waist either, so I won't hold that against it.

I like to see bees in my garden because they do a lot of good pollinating plants, resulting in more flowers and fruit. Hoverflies are also welcome visitors because they pollinate as well, and their larvae are hungry predators who gobble up aphids and thrips. It's all biodiversity, so it's all good.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day

Make Every Day EarthDay
Happy Earth Day, Bean Sprouts readers! Here are a selection of Earth Day events you might enjoy:

At The Science Museum, London, admission is free to The Science of Survival exhibition on Earth Day (admission price usually £6) (the website where you can trade books, CDs, DVDs and video games) will donate $1 to The Sierra Club for every trade made today.

Earth Day prayers will be said at the Warrington Campus of the University of Chester. They will parade a giant inflatable earth around the Green. At various stops they will say prayers, read the Bible alound, and call attention to the destruction we are causing to the earth.

On Earth Day 2008, 22nd April, Deepdale Backpackers and Camping will be hosting a whole range of eco friendly organisations for an Earth Day exhibition about the environment, including environmental technology installers, advisors, pressure groups and other related organisations. have some special offers on green products for Earth Day, including an instant $20 saving when you spend $99 or more on select planet-friendly products. Enter code EARTH4O8 at checkout.

Yahoo is launching a major campaign to promote and grow The Freecycle Network, including an Earth Day competition. Keep your eyes peeled for OFFERs in you local Freecycle group from an address ending in Just click on reply with the information requested and you may win a prize, including a box of organic food, a bamboo bicycle or a Toyota Prius. See Yahoo's Earth Day website for more details.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Roasted Vegetables and Goats' Cheese Pasta

Roasted Vegetables and Goats' Cheese PastaHere's another vegetarian recipe my sister Stephanie rustled up whilst she was visiting.

Roasted Vegetables and Goats' Cheese Pasta

Chop up a bunch of vegetables for roasting. We used courgettes, aubergines, red peppers and red onions. That was neither seasonal nor local for us at this time of year (slaps own wrist). But if you wanted you could roast onions, leeks, carrots or whatever seasonal vegetables you can get hold of. Personally I don't think I ever met a vegetable I wouldn't like to roast, so this recipe is the ultimate movable feast. Toss your vegetables in olive oil, add some sliced garlic, some fresh or dried herbs, and bung in a hot oven for a while. Sorry about the lack of precise weights, temperatures and times - regular readers will know by now that I just don't usually cook like that. I encourage you to experiment, to make use of the ingredients you have available, and to learn for yourself what ingredients work well together, how your own oven behaves, and to take food out of the oven or the pan when it is ready, not when your timer goes beep.

When the vegetables are almost roasted (which after all will depend on exactly which vegetables you use), put some pasta on to cook. I like quite chunky pasta with a chunky sauce like this one. I wouldn't use tagliatelle for example. We had some spinach trotolle from Seeds of Change that worked very well. When your pasta comes to the boil, stir a tin of chopped tomatoes into your roasted vegetables, arrange a sliced soft goats' cheese on top, and return to the oven for the cheese to melt. Steph used one of those little chevre cheeses between two of us. If you're cooking for more than two, use more cheeses. If you have some help in the kitchen, get someone else to bung a garlic ciabatta in the oven, rustle up a quick salad, and open a bottle of wine. If it's just you, open the wine and forget about the salad and ciabatta. By the time the pasta is cooked, the cheese should be melted. Serve the vegetables and cheese on top of the pasta, with the garlic bread and salad on the side if you have them, and a nice glass of wine. Lovely.

If you make this dish as part of our Try A Vegetarian Meal Challenge, let me know how it turns out. And don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Man in the Moon

the man in the moonIt's a full moon tonight. The moon waxes and wanes as it goes around the earth, so in fact the full moon isn't a date but an instant - the moment when it stops waxing and starts waning. The instant of full moon this month was 10:25am Universal Time April 20th, several hours before I wrote this post. That time was before dawn in the USA, so actually last night's full moon was a bit fuller than tonight's will be, even though the official date of the full moon this month is 20th. It's just one of those weird facts about full moons.

Another weird fact about full moons is that different people see different things in the moon. I've always seen a man in the moon, and many other people can see the man, too. But in other cultures they see a rabbit, a woman, writing, a frog and many other things. It's fun to try to find other shapes and images in the patterns of seas and highlands on the moon. If you get a clear sky tonight, why not try to see some shapes you've never seen before. Even though it's not quite full in some places, it will still be full enough tonight to do that.

The image I've added to this post is from Wikipedia and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. I've linked the image to the Wikipedia page so you can see the license if you're interested, and find out how to use the image yourself if you want to.

Recycled Clock

nice boxI was keeping a nice box just because I liked it. Steph suggested we make it into a clock. Good idea - the box was very shallow, with a square top, about the right dimensions for a clock. So how do you make a clock anyway?

clock mechanismWe bought a battery-powered (rechargeable batteries, obviously) clock mechanism from a craft and hobby shop. If you want to make a totally recycled clock you could use a working mechanism from another clock.

measuring the boxThe instructions on the packet told us how big to make the hole for the hands, so we measured the centre of the box precisely, and using a craft knife we made a hole the correct size.

After that it was mainly a matter of following the instructions. We pushed the mechanism through the hole and fixed it in place with a hot melt glue gun. We assembled the hands on to the stem of the mechanism, making sure they were all aligned at 12 o'clock. A little nut secured the hands in place, then we could insert the rechargeable battery and set the correct time. Hold your breath to see if the second hand begins to move. Hurrah!

cutting a hole for hangWe needed to be able to access the clock mechanism to change the time and replace the battery, and we wanted to be able to hang our clock. The bottom of the box fit very snugly on to the top, so we decided to push it back on (but not glue it) and make a hole in the back for hanging. We measured the exact centre of the box, and cut a triangular hole.

recycled box clockThat's it! Our clock was finished and we hung it on the wall.

If you don't have a box just the right size for a clock, there are other possibilities. You could make a box out of cardboard and cover it with wrapping paper, wallpaper, fabric, or paint it. Use the cardboard from a Corn Flakes packet, keeping the image from the packaging as the clock decoration for a funky Warhol-esque kitchen clock. Use a chocolate box with a nice image on the lid. I don't have numbers on my clock, but you could draw or paint numbers on yours. If you prefer a more professional look you could get transfers or stencils for numbers from a hobby craft shop. Or print some out in a font you like and glue them on. Alternatively you could just put dots in the location of the numbers - paint or draw the dots, or glue on beads, sequins or glass nuggets. If you make a recycled clock, I'd love to see it. Email me a photo, and let me know if you're willing for the photo to be shown on Bean Sprouts.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What's New in the Sustainable Blogosphere?

For the last two weeks I have been too busy to keep up with my emails and blogging, and now I'm catching up. Here's a few of the things that landed in my mailbox that I thought worth sharing with Bean Sprouts readers.

Earth Day

First of all, this coming Tuesday is Earth Day. Earth Day has been going since 1969, but the time is right for it to really take off. I'd love to see it become bigger than Christmas (which is a religious feast for Christians like me but tends to be just an excuse for an orgy of over-consumption and wastefulness for, well, for Christians like me and everyone else as well). Earth Day is for everyone who lives on Earth. You'd have to be living in a cave not to notice Christmas when it comes around. Earth Day should be the same. Every time you buy a calendar or a diary it should have Earth Day marked on it already. So do something. Spread the word. Send an e-card. Give gifts of LE light bulbs and organic wine. Invite friends around for a meal of local food, obviously. Blog about it. Spread the word. Donates to the Sierra Club

In honor of Earth Day this Tuesday,, the website where you can trade the books, DVDs, CDs, and video games you have, for the ones you want, for free, will be donating $1 dollar for every trade made on Earth Day to The Sierra Club. Swaptree is like Ebay but cash-less. British readers of a certain age will remember Noel Edmonds' Multicoloured Swap Shop which used to be on TV on Saturday mornings. Young viewers would send requests to swap a Bay City Rollers scarf for an Action Man with eagle eyes and so on. Swaptree is much swankier - you type in the bar code of the book, CD, DVD or video game you have and the clever Swaptree software figures out 2-way, 3-way and even 4-way swaps that mean everyone gets the things they want. You don't pay Swaptree for the privilege. It doesn't cost you anything apart from postage, and Swaptree can calculate the shipping cost and print out a mailing label so you don't even have to go to the post office. You give and receive feedback so you can feel confident you won't be ripped off. There's a video tour so you can see how easy it is. But sadly it is only available in the United States at present. As soon as it comes to the UK I'll be the first to sign up.

Penguin Classics Partners with The Nature Conservancy

Staying with the topic of books, I have some news about one of my favourite publishing imprints, Penguin Classics. On April 1st, 2008, Penguin Classics began their support of The Nature Conservancy's ambitious reforestation plan to plant and restore one billion trees in Brazil's Atlantic Forest.

In bookstores everywhere, bookmarks (printed on recycled paper) featuring three of Penguin's favorite environmental classics, Rachel Carson's Under the Sea Wind, John Muir's The Mountains of California and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature and Selected Essays, will encourage readers to visit The Nature Conservancy's website, donate a dollar and help plant a billion trees.

There's more information about this partnership here.

Downshifting Week

International Downshifting Week starts today. Yippee! Thanks to Rebecca from Sallygardens for the reminder. Last year it was just National Downshifting Week, so it's growing fast. Visit the website for ideas of how to take part, including:
  • Book a half-day off work to spend entirely with someone you love, no DIY allowed

  • Cook a meal from scratch, using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, preferably organic

  • Cut up a credit card
I'll have a think about what I'm going to do this year, and I'll let you know later in the week. Please leave a comment and tell me what you'll be doing for IDW.

Take Back the Filter

The indomitable Beth Terry from FakePlasticFish has started a new campaign to urge Clorox (the company that owns Brita in North America) to take responsibility for the millions of plastic Brita water filter cartridges that are disposed of each year. It's called Take Back The Filter and has its own homepage. Here in the UK we can recycle our Brita cartridges. The FAQ page of the Brita UK website says:
All components of the Brita cartridge are recyclable. Cartridges returned to Brita will be returned to our own recycling plant in Germany where the component parts are separated and processed for secondary use. For information on BRITA In-store recycling contact the BRITACare team on 0844 740 4800

And the Top Tips at Home webpage says:

In line with growing consumer demand for greener living, BRITA has launched a new in store recycling scheme. Recycling bins are now situated in a range of high street stores such as Robert Dyas, Argos and Cargo. Other major retailer collection points will be following soon.

The BRITA branded bins will be located next to the existing water filter category in store. Customers can recycle any BRITA consumer product filter cartridge, including those for the new BRITA water filter taps.

So once again this is more relevant to US readers than to our home grown readers. But the Internet is an international medium and I'm glad to support Beth's campaign.

This Bill's Got No Balls

Here's one specifically for UK readers, though. 'This Bill's Got No Balls' - the new short film from I Count - follows three hilarious scenarios where the protagonist, Bill, confronts three eyewatering situations - on the football pitch, in the office and on the street - that clearly demonstrate that he's lacking a sensitive part of his anatomy. Click here to watch the film.

Viewers are encouraged to visit the I Count website, from where they can put pressure on their local MPs to vote for a Climate Change Bill with balls when the new law is voted on in the summer. The film can also be viewed on myspace and facebook so please feel free to forward it to your friends.

Mathew Horne - of BBC3's 'Gavin and Stacey' who provided the voice over for the film - said:
The Climate Change Bill needs balls if we're ever going to tackle climate change. I will be putting the squeeze on my MP to make sure we have a tough bill. You should too.

The Broke Vacationer

Sally Thompson of TravelHacker has written an article called The Broke Vacationer: 100 Ways to Get Free Stuff When Traveling. I like some of the frugal tips in this article, although I don't really want to encourage people to fly all over the world on their holidays. Have a look at the article and decide for yourself which of the tips fit your own ethical values and which you might prefer to pass.

Home Gardening Tips

Bill Stanley, author of Home Gardening Tips, got in touch to ask if he could add Bean Sprouts to his blogroll. Bill has been a home gardener for over 20 years and enjoys sharing his gardening tips with friends and family as well as the rest of the world. As well as tips on plants and gardening, Bill has recently added articles about saving the environment whilst gardening, buying flowers online and those slimy little buggers, snails. Just for the record, I'm always delighted when anyone adds Bean Sprouts to their blogroll, or links to Bean Sprouts in a blog article. You don't need to ask permission, but if you do I'll check your blog out and maybe write about it, just like this! So email me and say hi.

We Dig for Victory

Rob Burns has built a mini campaign site called We Dig for Victory. He has created a little sticker We Dig For Victory! and his website says:

By using this sticker on my blog or site I'm digging for victory by...
1. Growing some of my food at home or at an allotment - however modest.
2. Eating locally and seasonally where I can and reducing food miles.
3. Buying from small, local shops where I can and supporting my local economy.

There's a bit more about the campaign on the page titled About This Site. Why not add the sticker to your own blog or website and spread the word?

Thats it, I'm all caught up with my emails now. I only wish the same were true of my laundry .

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wild Blackberry Leaf Tea

young blackberry leavesSpring is springing and new leaves are starting to grow on shrubs and trees. Some of them make tasty herbal tea, so I went out foraging with my 4-year-old niece Rebecca for wild blackberry leaves.

You don't want to accidentally pick the wrong thing, and leaves are a bit trickier to identify than berries, especially when they're young. So this is perhaps a project for experienced foragers. If you already have your favourite blackberrying spots and you are confident you can identify the correct plants then you'll be fine. But if you haven't foraged before, wait until the late summer or autumn and then go looking for blackberries. There's nothing in the UK that looks anything like a blackberry that might do you any harm, so it's a great first foraging project. Remember the locations of the plants. Have a good look at the leaves and the stems and become familiar with them. Then pick wild blackberry leaf tea next spring.

You want to pick the bunches of young leaves as they emerge. You don't need gloves - you're not going to mess around with the thorny stems. Just grasp the leaves and tug them off. Don't strip all the young leaves off a single stem. You don't want to kill the plant, although brambles (wild blackberry plants) are devilishly tough and could probably survive. But it's good foraging etiquette to just take a couple of bunches of leaves from each stem and then move along.

Rebecca picking dandelionsRebecca and I picked maybe half-a-pint to a pint of bramble leaves before going home. Actually Rebecca only picked one leaf, then ran off and picked some daisies and dandelions for her mum, leaving me to do all the work. I didn't mind, really.

You make wild blackberry leaf tea almost the same way you make ordinary tea - pour boiling water over and steep. There are only two differences. The first difference is that you use more fresh leaves than you could fit in a tea bag. How much leaves for a cup? I'm afraid that's the same sort of question as how long is a piece of string? About yay much. If you use more it will be stronger. Less and it will be weaker. But at any rate, use a lot more than the teaspoon or so you would use of dried leaves. I usually about half fill my tea pot with leaves (not packed, just loosely dropped in) then top it up with boiling water. If you only want to make a single cup, half fill your tea cup with leaves and fill with water.

making blackberry leaf teaThe second difference is that you steep for longer than you would steep normal tea. I'd steep blackberry leaf tea at least half an hour. I've also steeped it a lot longer than that - even a few hours. This time I steeped a jug full for about an hour or so, drank a cup, left the rest steeping overnight, then strained the cold tea into a smaller jug and put it in my fridge.

blackberry leaf tea timeIt's nice hot or cold. I like it better with honey than without. You wouldn't usually add milk, but hey, if you like it that way it's your cup of tea. If you can collect loads of leaves you can dry them and drink wild blackberry leaf tea all year long. After spring the leaves become darker and tougher and don't make such nice tea. But I enjoy it as a spring treat, a fresh taste of the first new greenness of the year.

Update: A reader has reported developing a rash after using this tea. I know that many commercially available herb teas contain blackberry leaves without bearing any warnings, and I can't find any warnings about allergic reactions to blackberry leaves on the internet or in the foraging books I have. I suppose it's possible to have a reaction to anything - I know someone who is allergic to apples but I don't post allergy warnings with apple recipes. If you've never tried blackberry tea before, don't overdo it the first time, and be on the lookout for allergic reactions. I should reemphasise that you must never eat anything you've foraged unless you are totally 100% positive you have identified it correctly.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fried Halloumi with Redcurrant Chili Sauce

Fried Halloumi with Redcurrant SauceOne of the nice things about having my sister Stephanie staying with me is that I eat better, especially at lunch times. I usually just grab anything quick for lunch, but I make more of an effort when other people are here. Steph has been doing a lot of the cooking, too, and todays lunch was a bit of a joint effort.

Fried Halloumi with Redcurrant Chili Sauce

Assemble some salad ingredients on a plate. We had lettuce, radishes, spring onions and red pepper in the fridge, but you should use whatever you've got. Slice a halloumi cheese and dip the slices into a beaten egg and then into wholemeal breadcrumbs to coat. Fry the slices in olive oil until golden, then put them onto the salad. Thin some redcurrant sauce with some red wine. Or you could use mango chutney, apricot jam - just have a rummage in your cupboards for something fruity that might go with fried halloumi, and be adventurous. If you don't have red wine to hand, thin it out with wine vinegar or water or apple juice - use your imagination. Add half a chopped chili to the sauce (or some dried chili, or a few drops of Tabasco sauce - you get the idea). Warm up the sauce in the same pan you used for your cheese, then get your arty sister to drizzle it artistically over the top. Serves 2 for a delicious and companionable lunch.

Why not try this recipe (or your own variation of it) as part of April's Try A Vegetarian Meal Challenge?

Compost Competition Winner

Ken Thompson's CompostA couple of weeks ago I announced a competition to win a copy of the book Compost by Ken Thompson. Entrants had to identify what was unusual about the following short review of the book:

K. Thompson's book Compost shows you how to turn scraps and plant cuttings into compost. It shows that it's quick and not at all hard to do. It has lots of full colour photos. This book is good for compost virgins and compost-o-phobics.

I didn't count all the entrants but there were quite a few and most of them were wrong, so maybe the puzzle was a bit too hard. Sorry. On the other hand, five people got it right and lots of people seemed to enjoy trying, so maybe it was just hard enough after all.

The answer was that the review was a lipogram, a piece of writing which avoids a certain letter of the alphabet. You didn't have to use the word "lipogram" to be entered into the draw, but you had to spot that the review didn't use the letter E, the most common letter in the English language.

My beautiful 4-year-old goddaughter Rebecca picked the winner out of a (rather small) hat this morning. The winner was Ruth Turner of Edmonton. Congratulations, Ruth. A copy of Compost will be winging its way to you as soon as I can get to the post office.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We Apologise For The Interruption...

I haven't vanished off the face of the earth. It's just that I've been very busy recording music with my sisters Steph and Lindsey, redecorating my living room, sewing banners for the kids' school, attending poetry recitals, choir practice, giving undergraduate tutorials and marking dozens of essays, teaching 6-11 year old kids about 12-bar-blues, and generally having a good time.

I'll be blogging as usual very soon. I know I have to announce the winner of the Compost Competition (it's now closed to entries). I'm aware I havn't yet published any vegetarian recipes although I promised I would. I want to tell you about some of the crafty and recycle-ey things Steph and I have been up to. And I'm going to review Andy and Dave Hamilton's super new book, The Self-Sufficientish Bible.

So don't go anywhere. I'll be back very soon.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ali G and the Tree Huggers

"Ketchup should be free", I want that on a t-shirt!

Cartoon as always from Throbgoblins. Click the panel to read the full strip.

Cantankerous Frank and Gordon Brown cartoon panel

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eco Paints

earthBorn paintsSteph and I went to Homebase today and we spotted a range of eco paints by earthBorn. earthBorn paints are environmentally friendlier because they're VOC free. VOCs are volatile organic compounds - they're the nasties in paint and other things such as paint strippers. They're also what makes new carpets stink, and other plastic things like that. Sick Building Syndrome is thought to be caused by VOCs in paint and carpets etc. They're unpleasant pollutants in the air and water, but confusingly they're also emitted in large quantities by trees, which is why Ronald Regan once said:
Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.

The Great Smoky Mountains in the Appalachians are so called because of the VOCs released by trees in the area, causing a persistent orange smog. To put it into perspective, though, trees also absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, so overall they do more good than harm. The same is probably not true of automobiles or emulsion paint. So if it's possible to make paint without the VOCs it sounds like a good thing to me.

I was surprised to find eco paints in a big DIY chain like Homebase. I thought I'd have to order them off the internet, or maybe drive miles to some small retailer off the beaten track. Next time Stephanie talks me into redecorating a room, we'll head to Homebase and look at the earthBorn paints. I still want to do more research about eco paints and VOCs, but this is a start.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sewing Day

old fashioned illustration of mother and daughter sewingSteph and I spent all day today sewing a banner for the kids' school. My daughter's teacher asked me to help with this project. Every student in her class had painted a design on to a 12" square of fabric. I assembled these into a huge banner with a hanging sleeve at the back and 2" sashing strips separating all 30 squares. I'll take a photo when they hang it up in the school hall - there's nowhere in my house big enough to hang it or lay it flat to photograph it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Tefal Quick Cup

Tefal Quick Cup how it worksI'm not normally a huge fan of eco gadgets. If anyone asked me "What should I buy to save the planet?" my answer would be "Less. Just buy less."

But my sister, Lindsey, turned up at my house this afternoon with her new green purchase - a Tefal Quick Cup. It's a sort of space age kettle that pumps the water out of a reservoir and heats it up as you need it - like a combi boiler for your hot drinks. If you just want a single cup of coffee you can have it in a few seconds rather than the few minutes it takes to boil an electric kettle.

Lindsey bought it because her husband, Andrew, has an incurable habit of boiling an entire kettle for a single cup of tea. Lindsey has tried everything to cure him of this, and the Quick Cup is her latest approach. This is it's main selling point - it's an eco kettle because you only heat the water you use. About 1/4 of your household electricity usage is for heating water, and filling up the kettle to make a single cup of tea is a terrible eco-crime.

Tefal claims that the Quick Cup uses up to 65% less energy than a standard kettle, and that this is about £30 per year for a typical household. The gadget costs around £60, so the payback time is around 2 years if Tefal's figures are correct. It can also operate as a water filter using Claris cartridges, but if you don't care about filtering your water, or if you object to the waste of disposable plastic cartridges, you can just do without these - they're optional.

There are some drawbacks to the Quick Cup. It make a really unpleasant buzzing noise (it's probably the pump) when in operation. Of course, it's only in operation for a few seconds so that's not the end of the world. It is quite quick for a single cup, but if you had to make drinks for five or six people I'd prefer to switch on a kettle and then busy myself with putting the tea bags and sugars in the cups and so on whilst it comes to the boil, rather than have to stand pressing a button all that time. And I think the noise would really be driving me mad after five or six cups.

Another problem is that the Quick Cup doesn't actually boil the water. That's one way it saves energy I suppose. But a lot of commenters on HippyShopper's review complained that their tea didn't taste right because the water wasn't hot enough, although most of them thought it made coffee well enough. The tea tastes OK to me, although I like my tea on the weak side so perhaps that's the reason. I took the temperature of a fresh cupful of water from the Quick Cup and it was about 75°, compared to about 85° for a cup freshly poured from a kettle. Why wasn't it 100° fresh from the kettle? I guess it cools down a lot when poured into a cold cup. Because water comes out cooler from the Quick Cup you can drink it faster. You might find that a bonus. On the other hand, it goes cold sooner too. So I can see that some people might love it and some might hate it, depending on their individual preferences and habits.

Finally, the Quick Cup draws energy when on standby. Most electric kettles don't draw any energy when they're not actually boiling, so I wonder if the energy savings of the Quick Cup are wiped out by the standby costs? Lindsey says she'll switch hers off at the mains when it's not in use. That's a good plan, but why not just build it so when it's off, it's off?

Lindsey likes her tea much weaker even than I drink it, so she' ll probably be happy with her new purchase if she can get used to the noise. And if it cures Andrew of his eco-crime then it's a good choice for them. But I won't be rushing out to buy one myself.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Compost Competition

Compost by Ken ThompsonIf you would like a chance to win a copy of Compost by Ken Thompson (reviewed here a couple of weeks ago), then here's your chance. All you have to do is identify what is unusual about the following short review of the book:
K. Thompson's book Compost shows you how to turn scraps and plant cuttings into compost. It shows that it's quick and not at all hard to do. It has lots of full colour photos. This book is good for compost virgins and compost-o-phobics.

If you can spot what is unusual about the review, email me with your answer and your postal address. Don't put your answer in the comments. The winner will be pulled from a hat next Monday. The competition is only open to residents of the British Isles because I'm too mean to pay international postage. And anyway, think of the air miles.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Confession of an Eco-Sinner

Mel hanging laundryIn yesterday's post about decorating, Anonymous said...
Just one little thought - re going to B & Q to buy paint testers - and I mean this kindly......are B & Q now making paint testers of environmentally-friendly paint?

Not as far as I know, Anonymous. To be honest I didn't give it much thought. My sister turned up, said "While I'm here, let's paint the living room", so we headed to the nearest big paint retailer to see what they had. I've never looked into eco-paints in the past. I suspect they cost more and have a limited range of colours. But maybe I'm wrong. I promise I'll look into it soon, and the next time I'm forced to decorate a room I'll know more about the options.

But the question raised some thoughts in me, thoughts I've been having for a while now. I didn't start this blog to be an eco-prophet. I didn't want to bring light to the ignorant and share my vision of the one true way towards sustainable living. I don't know the one true way, and I don't think anyone else does either. I'm slightly alarmed at being declared one of the 50 most powerful bloggers in the world because really I'm just a short, plump thirty-mumble-year-old part-time Open University lecturer, sitting on my bed with my laptop on a Sunday afternoon and writing about the things I'm trying to do to become a bit more eco-friendly. I worry that some Bean Sprouts readers don't realise that. I think some people think I get paid to do this. I don't. I think some people think I'm a professional journalist. I'm not. I think some people think I have qualifications and professional experience in environmental topics. Actually I just read a lot, and I am qualified in critical analysis - in separating good research from bad - so that helps. I try to live ethically as much as I can. But I'm not perfect and never will be. If you spotted in one of my photos that I was wearing a new pair of trousers, would you quiz me "Are those eco-trousers? Or are they just from M&S?"

I worry about things like Girl with a One-Track Mind, a woman who blogged anonymously about her sex life. When a national newspaper revealed her identity she lost her job, fell out with her family, and suffered all sorts of repercussions. If Bean Sprouts becomes popular enough, will journalists come and rummage through my black bin and write news stories because they found paper that could have been recycled but wasn't, packaging from ready meals, and McDonalds toys? They probably could find those things. Would that reveal me as a hypocrite?

I hope not, because there would be no way to totally avoid such accusations without living in a cave. And the one big important point I want to make in everything I write here is that you don't have to live in a cave. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to do everything. But please do something. Don't think "It's too hard to be an eco-saint so I won't even bother trying". Instead think "I don't want to go totally vegan but I could eat a meatless meal once a week. I can't afford to super-insulate my house and install a ground heat pump, but I could stick my head in the loft and just see how much insulation I've got. I can't give up battery-powered gadgets altogether, but I can get a battery recharger. I can't do everything, but I can do something."

I'm on a journey to learn more and put what I learn into practice. I'm not perfect at present. I never will be. But I want to share my journey with you. Does that sound like a cop-out because I bought non-eco-paint? Are you disappointed in me? Please let me know what you think.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Steph painting a wallMy sister, Stephanie, is here for a nice long two-week visit. We've plans to meet up a few times with our other sister, Lindsey, for music and fun. I want us to do some work together on the allotment. And she's persuaded me to redecorate the living room which we haven't changed since we moved in five years ago.

She got here last night and by half-past-eight this morning we'd already been to B&Q to buy plants and paint testers. Now it's half-past-one in the afternoon, and we've slapped little squares of paint on several walls, stripped the chimney breast, started to wallpaper it and then decided we hated the paper, so we've stopped for a pot of tea and to think up a plan B. Plan B so far is "paint it pink".

She's also got grand plans to mosaic the hearth to complement the fireplace we made from smashed-up crockery. I want to plant some hanging baskets and pots to brighten up the front door, and Steph wants to paint the front door red.

Sounds pretty ambitious and exhausting? Add to all that the presence of five kids between the ages of four and ten, and it becomes a totally insane plan. I love it when Steph comes.

Friday, April 04, 2008

UN World Autism Awareness Day

Tom, Eleanor and SamApril 2nd was the first UN World Autism Awareness Day. Sorry this post is two days late, but I only found out about it yesterday.

All three of my kids have autism. To be precise, one has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism), one is undergoing diagnosis and one has undoubted traits but doesn't need any additional support in school so we're not bothering with diagnosis.

Autism is a neurological condition that causes a complex and variable set of symptoms. I'm not at all convinced it is just one condition, but I rather suspect that in future scientists will identify a range of different conditions, perhaps with totally different causes, that just happen to have overlapping symptoms.

My kids are very intelligent. I know all parents think their kids are geniuses, but mine really are smart kids. And yet they struggle terribly to understand things that even the dumbest kid can figure out, such as how to play with another child, how to open a conversation, whose turn it is to speak in the conversation, and when the conversation is over. They aren't getting very much better at these things as they get older, but the other kids they know are getting less tolerant of it so they're finding it harder to make and keep friends. It's sometimes said that autistic people are natural loners, that they don't want or need friends. That's not true. Many autistic people long for friendship but they find it very hard to strike up and maintain friendships with non-autistic people. It breaks my heart to hear of the break-ups and fallings-out, and watch their clumsy attempts to socialise. One year I phoned almost every number in my address book before I could find just two willing guests for a birthday party. I feel very helpless about it.

They seem to experience boredom as acute suffering. They just cannot display patience or tolerance for waiting or having nothing to do. It's a bunch of fun going on public transport I can tell you. Waiting at the bus stop or train station is guaranteed to have them fidgeting, poking each other, or climbing and running like monkeys. When the bus or train arrives that's interesting enough to quiet them for a minute or two, then they're bored again and start squirming or shouting or otherwise annoying the other passengers. Threats and bribes make little difference. Bringing books, MP3 players, hand-held games consoles or card games is the only solution for unavoidable long journeys, and even that's not a guarantee of good behaviour.

My kids have extremely strong reactions to stimuli. They're all terribly fussy eaters, for example, and no amount of behavioural approaches make the slightest bit of difference (star charts, rewards, discipline, no-pudding-til-you-finish-your-firsts, etc). My mum was convinced I just wasn't being firm enough, and so engaged Tom in an afternoon of cooking. Tom had great fun helping nana make pasta sauce and cook vegetables, but then wasn't willing to eat what he'd cooked. Mum forced him to eat it, and he vomited on her. It's not just childish pickiness - it's part of the condition. They're very sensitive to smells. I mean really astonishingly sensitive. If I peel an onion in the kitchen Tom will come through from the living room saying "I can smell onions, are you making dinner?". They're also sensitive to sounds, and react to loud noises as if they were ten times louder than they really are (unless they're making the loud noises themselves, of course). I took them to the theatre once and whenever the audience applauded all three of my kids put their hands over their ears because the sound was painfully loud. I've often stood in public lavatories asking everyone who came in "Would you mind not using the hot-air hand dryers? My kids don't like the noise". Tiled public toilets echo terribly, and the kids would become hysterical when trapped in a small (bad-smelling) room with a deafening echoing roar. I used to try to take Tom swimming when he was a baby but he hated it and would go purple through crying so hard before we ever got in the water. I now suspect the weird loud echoey sound of the pool, and perhaps also the chlorine smell, was responsible for his reaction.

But that's just my kids. There are other types of autism with other features. And I could go on for hours about other aspects of autism that my kids show - poor coordination, list-making, echolalia, obsessions, compulsiveness, rituals, hyperfocus, idiosyncratic speech, and so on.

So how did I miss Autism Awareness Day? You may not believe this, but I don't think about autism that much. If you asked me to describe myself I could fill pages of self-descriptions before it occurred to me to describe myself as "a mother of three autistic kids". In almost 800 blog posts so far I've mentioned it three times (four now). But I've written post after post about my kids without mentioning autism or Asperger's. It's just normal to us. I don't think of the kids as being autistic most of the time. They're just my kids. My beautiful, intelligent, talented, funny, loving, naughty, exasperating, creative, kind, disobedient, crazy, lively kids. Just the same as everyone else's kids.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Try A Vegetarian Meal Challenge

wartime poster save scraps to feed pigsIt's often said that if you're really concerned about your impact on the planet - in terms of carbon emissions, pollution, sustainability and so on - you should become a vegetarian. For example says:
The best thing that any of us can do for the environment is to adopt a vegetarian diet.

It's also argued that it is inefficient to grow crops to feed to animals to eat their meat, milk, eggs, etc, rather than just grow the crops to feed the people. Greenpeace USA says:
It takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. ... The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people — more than the entire human population on Earth.

But I'm not totally convinced. Just east of where I live is Derbyshire, a rocky county of low mountains and fells. It's sheep-rearing country, because nothing else can thrive there. Dry-stone walls separate the fields, not because they look picturesque, but because even hedges won't grow reliably on the thin soil and the wind-blasted hills. If you didn't farm sheep there, you wouldn't farm anything.

In the book The New Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency, John Seymour strongly advocates keeping a cow on any smallholding, even one as small as a single acre, primarily because of its fertility-generating properties (he means dung). Pigs are also prized by smallholders as the rapidest of compost-making systems. You put food scraps, vegetable trimmings, windfall apples and so on in one end of the pig, and within 24 hours fertiliser comes out of the other end. And you get to eat the pig. It's a win-win situation.

Of course, most of the meat you buy in supermarkets isn't produced this way. Too often it is produced intensively. They call them farms, but really they're much more like factories. And they do produce horrendous amounts of pollution, they rely on enormous quantities of grain and soya and water, and the animal welfare is non-existent.

So I'm not asking you to become a vegetarian. I don't think it's necessary, and I don't think you would do it anyway just because I asked you. I'm asking you, this month, to have a vegetarian main meal once a week. Don't give up meat, but do eat less meat. If you know somewhere you can get well-produced meat, perhaps from a farm shop or a farmers market (don't assume all farm shop or farmers market meat is well-produced - talk to the butcher and ask lots of questions) then please use that rather than the supermarket.

I'll be posting lots of simple and tasty vegetarian recipes this month. Please email me your favourite vegetarian main meals. And I'll be talking about the environmental impact and ethics of meat eating. If you're up for the challenge of eating four vegetarian main meals in April, please vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Focus on Heating Challenge Results

Heating Challenge Pie Chart

Throughout March I've been focusing on reducing my home heating costs, because I was staggered to learn that 84% of typical domestic energy use goes on space heating and water heating. So if you're serious about cutting your energy bills or reducing your carbon footprint you can have a much bigger impact by sorting out your insulation than you can by using low-energy lightbulbs or not leaving gadgets on standby.

So I posted a list of things you could do to cut your home heating bills, and invited readers to vote in the poll any time they did one thing on the list.

The results were:
  • I've done one thing on the list! 35 (62%)
  • I've already done all of the things on the list! 15 (26%)
  • I don't want to do any of the things on the list! 3 (5%)
  • I can't do any of the things on the list! 3 (5%)

There are still things on the list I haven't done, but I'm determined to do all I can to bring my home heating bill down. For example, I still need to top up my loft insulation. So I'll keep revisiting the list, and I'll tell you about my progress.

Well done to everyone who participated in the challenge. I hope you'll keep doing all you can to insulate your home and save energy, too.

A new challenge for April will be coming soon.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bicycle Chain Cleaning

ShelBroCo Bike Chain CleanerIt's spring time and we've had a few nice days - the kind of day that makes you feel like going for a long bike ride.

But if your bike has been rusting in the shed all winter it's important to clean and oil it before you hit the road. The chain in particular should be thoroughly cleaned at regular intervals. When was the last time you cleaned your bike chain? Uhuh. I thought so.

To do a really proper job of cleaning a manky bike chain, of course you need to disassemble it. Don't panic, it's easier than it sounds. There are clear step-by-step instructions, with photographs, at Sheldon Brown's excellent webpage on the topic. I strongly advise you to read it carefully.

If you enjoyed Sheldon's bike chain cleaning article, visit his home page for more advice, information, enthusiasm and humour about cycling. RIP Sheldon Brown (1944-2008)