Saturday, May 31, 2008

French Knitting

Sam French knittingSince the kids helped dyeing yarn with Kool Aid and making our own knitting needles, they're keen to try knitting. The book Kids Knitting recommended starting kids with a French knitting spool. It's easier than knitting with needles but it shows them how knitting works, by hooking loops of thread through the loops on the row beneath.

So Eleanor and Sam have been French knitting. That's a picture of Sam. He's 6, and he has mastered it very quickly.

When I was researching French knitting resources on the Internet to include in this post, I found this site about Knitting Nancies. I never realised there was so much to say on the topic of French knitting, but this fascinating web page uncovers the history of it from the medieval lucet through to a plastic toy which is basically a 45-loop mechanical knitting Nancy. Check it out.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Four Egg Day

four eggsWhen we had only two hens we got two eggs each day. So when we got two more hens we naively assumed we'd get four eggs each day, after a settling-in period.

But our two older girls are hybrid layers. They're bred to produce an egg a day. The new girls are Rhode Island Reds, and there are some differences we didn't expect. Rhodies are utility birds, bred for meat and eggs. They're not as good at producing eggs as hens bred to be layers, and they're not as good at producing meat as birds bred for that purpose. But they're a practical compromise for homesteaders and smallholders.

Pure bred birds also go broody more readily than hybrids, as we've already found. So a four-egg day is a special occasion rather than a daily event.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Home-made Knitting Kneedles

Home-made knitting needlesHere's another of the projects from Kids Knitting by Melanie Falick. I'd never thought of making my own knitting needles before, but it's very simple and fun. They're fun to use as well.

I can recommend the book as it is full of quick funky knitting projects like this. But there are instructions for making your own knitting needles on various websites.

6-year-old Sam helped me make these, and it has inspired him to learn to knit. With the aid of Falick's book he is making good progress, knitting a bean-bag on the needles he made himself.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kool-Aid Dyed Yarn

Koo Aid dyed yarnI dyed some wool using Kool-Aid (an American soft drink). I followed the instructions in a book called Kids Knitting by Melanie Falick (we Melanies are a darned talented bunch aren't we?). I won't reproduce her directions because they're copyright. If you want to dye yarn with Kool Aid without buying the book there are several sets of instructions on the Internet, for example at Kool-Aid is not an everyday item in the UK and I had to buy some from I wonder if you can dye yarn with Ribena?

It was quick, easy and fun, and very effective. I was amazed at the depth of the colours, especially the purple from the grape flavour and the red from the cherry flavour. One amazing part of the process is that the coloured drink turns colourless as all the colour is taken up by the yarn. That was fun to watch. It also means there is no long tedious rinsing out of excess dye at the end of the process. Just a quick rinse in clean water then hang it out to dry. And the dyed yarns smell fruity, although presumably that vanishes the first time you wash it. It makes knitting with it fun, though.

There are other projects in Kids Knitting that I want to try. Watch this space.

Weekly Carnival Round-Up

This week, Bean Sprouts has been featured in the following blog carnivals:

#126 Festival Of Frugality – If I Had A Car Edition featured Save the Planet - Stop Shopping
The Make It From Scratch Carnival featured Recycled Plant Markers
Farmers Market Fare 5 featured Gardening Leave
The Carnival of Country Living featured Hug Your Allotment Chairperson
The Carnival of Green Gardening featured Make A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul and Top Ten Compost Systems. Oops! I must have accidentally submitted twice.

I'm experimenting with including a weekly carnival round-up on Bean Sprouts. It's good bloggiquette to link back to the carnivals, and some readers will be interested in reading the carnivals on the topics that interest them. But I'm aware that some readers might not be interested. So I promise that whenever I post a carnival round-up I'll always post something else that day - some news, a recipe, a how-to, photographs of the chickens, something like that. I don't want anyone avoiding Bean Sprouts because "Oh, it's Tuesday, she never posts anything good on Tuesday, just that carnival thingy". Let me know how you feel about the carnival feature by leaving a comment.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday Funnies

Official Monster Raving Loony PartyThe Official Monster Raving Loony Party Manifesto: Environmental Policies

16. Make Weeding an olympic sport in order to save the 100 year old Manor Garden Allotments from being demolished for the 2012 games.

136. People who drink gin and tonics will not be allowed ice. This will help to preserve the polar ice cap.

137. To make electric cheaper to produce all joggers will be placed in a huge revolving drum linked by a dynamo to the national grid.

139. We will channel all the hot air coming from Parliament into a purpose built Wind farm just off the Coast, so that everyone will have free heating in the winter, and electric fans in the summer.

And here are some from an old manifesto that seem to have been dropped:

All foxes will be issued with sheep’s clothing.

Half the grey squirrel population will be painted red in order to increase the red squirrel population.

All houses built on flood plains will have foundations made of sponge, in order to soak up surplus water.

Fox hunting will be re introduced under the “one hound – one dog” policy to make it a bit fairer.

To solve the increasing obesity problem and global warming, all TVs and home computers must be run only by exercycle generators. A phase-in period of this major remedy will be allowed - maybe 5 to 5m minutes.

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

Friday, May 23, 2008

I Am A Bee Murderer

empty bee hiveI've been neglecting my bees. I can't believe it was all the way back in February I checked them and found that both colonies survived the winter, although one had suffered mouse damage. I bought new woodwork and made up 40 frames with wax. I rescued some old used equipment and disassembled it, cleaned it up, and put new wax in. I melted and filtered the old wax and I made up several litres of sugar syrup to feed the weak colony.

And then I ground to a halt. I never went back and put all these things in place. Why not? Well, sometimes the weather was poor, sometimes I was busy, sometimes I forgot. I know - pathetic isn't it?

I went to the apiary today and found that the mouse-weakened colony is dead. Totally gone. Cleaned out. I probably could have saved them if I had done all the things I meant to do. So it's my fault they died.

The other colony is fine. They're a bit under-strength for the time of year, but a lot of beekeepers are finding the same thing. They're showing no signs of swarming. I'm just going to let them be, and keep my eye on them to see if they build up in strength.

I'm going to go the the bees at least once a week. My plan is to go every Monday. If for some reason I can't go on Monday, I'll try again on Tuesday, Wednesday etc. Then I'll go again the next Monday. If I just can't manage to find time to do that, I'm going to sell them. It's what I'd do if I had a dog and I couldn't take care of it properly. I'm going to be a proper beekeeper or I'm going to quit.

I believe...

I believe it is a big mistake to think:

I am a person and I cannot do very much to make a difference, therefore people cannot do very much to make a difference

People are what makes a difference. The behaviour of people is causing damage to our environment, so changing the behaviour of people is the only thing that can reverse it.

It is a mistake to think

I am small and powerless but governments are big and powerful, so the government should do something about this, not me

Think about the word "government". Govern - ment. What governments do is govern people. All governments can do is pass laws telling people how to act. But you don't have to wait until they pass a law telling you to live more responsibly. You can start living more responsibly right now.

It is a mistake to think

My household only releases a small amount of carbon, a small amount of pollution, uses a small amount of resources, but businesses release much more. So businesses should do something about this, not me.

Businesses make things, do things or sell things that people buy. If people don't buy them then the businesses stop making them. They have to - they have no money to continue. So what businesses do, at the end of the day, is down to consumer. In other words, people. In other words, you.

I'm not just saying "Change your lightbulbs to low-energy ones and everything will be OK". It's going to take more than that. Lightbulbs are just a painless first step to get the people who currently do nothing "green" to get themselves started. It's a bit like health advice to park your car further away from the supermarket and take the stairs more often. On its own it won't get you fit, but if you tell someone who is 100lbs overweight to get training for a marathon they'll just give up in despair. So we say "Start here - this change is easy", and then we encourage people to do a little more and a little more.

It's a good message. It means you can stop wringing your hands and waiting for everyone else to do something. You can start doing it yourself right now. What are you going to do?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tragedy of the Commons

cow in fieldImagine you're a medieval villager. You have access to a common - a fertile pasture that is owned by all the villagers together. The common can support 100 sheep - any more and the pasture would turn into a muddy wasteland. So the 20 households in the village each graze 5 sheep on the common, including yours.

One day you have a brilliant idea. If you got another sheep, that would only add 1% more burden on the common. That's not enough to turn it into muddy wasteland, surely? But you would get a benefit of 20% more sheep for your household. That's a big benefit for such a tiny disadvantage to the common. You can't resist it, and the next day you buy another sheep.

But what happens when your neighbours notice? They want an extra sheep, too. They also do the maths and realise they can have a huge extra benefit to their household whilst only placing a small burden on the common. Soon everyone has 6 sheep each, and now the common is supporting 120 sheep rather than the 100 it can sustainably manage. In fact some people think they could probably keep 7 sheep on the common, and maybe even a cow.

Within a year all the grass on the common is grazed away. The feet of the sheep (and the cows and, for some reason, a kangaroo) poach the earth, churning it up and preventing the grass from re-growing. When the rain falls the common becomes a mudbath. When the sun shines the mud turns to dust. When the wind blows the dust blows away. Where once there was a fertile pasture capable of supporting 100 sheep and 20 families, now there is a barren dustbowl.

This little parable is often used to explain why nobody takes care of things that nobody owns. Our atmosphere, our seas, our fish stocks, old growth forest, the climate - each of us can get a big benefit whilst causing only a small amount of additional burden on these things, these commons. But 6.6 billion people on the Earth are placing too much burden on them, and if we don't stop we could end up with a dustbowl planet, incapable of supporting human life.

Economists argue about the solution to the tragedy of the commons. Some claim that everything should be owned privately - if the common in the parable was owned by a landowner who leased it to the villagers then they would not be able to overgraze it. But how can anyone own the atmosphere or the climate? Other people want governments to restrict people from over-exploiting the commons by enacting laws against pollution, overfishing and so on. My preferred solution is for individuals to take personal responsibility and control their own behaviour for the common good, for example by cutting their carbon footprint, buying local food even if it is more expensive, and avoiding over-consumption in general. But I always was hopelessly idealistic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jungle Clearance - Before and After

Ed in the scary weedy jungle

As promised - "before" and "after" shots of the scary jungle area. There's still more work to do - more manure to shovel over all the plack weed supressing membrane, the final strip in the background still to be strimmed, cleared, membraned and manured, and then we can plant all our pumpkins and squash in it. But we've made a heck of a lot of progress already and it's looking much better.

After jungle clearance

Weekly Carnival Roundup

This week, Bean Sprouts has been featured in the following blog carnivals:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Full Moon

Full moon MayMay's full moon is on May 20th at 2:11 GMT. Remember that full moon is an instant - the moment when the moon stops waxing and starts waning. It's not a date. The instant of full moon this month occurs on May 20th in some time zones and on May 19th in others. Thinking about celestial mechanics is enough to make your brain dribble out of your ears, but I think I'm right in saying that wherever you live, the moon you see after nightfall on 19th May will be fuller than the moon you see after nightfall on the 20th. That's why I'm publishing this post today and not tomorrow.

In India and other places close by, the full moon moment occurs on May 19th, so that is the date Buddhists celebrate Vesak - Buddha's birthday. Buddhists make a special effort to avoid harming anything for the day, they eat vegetarian food even if that isn't their usual practice, and they release birds, insects and animals as a symbol of liberation.

We've had beautiful weather so far in May and I'm looking forward to getting a good view of tonight's full moon, and perhaps taking some photographs. But the beautiful photograph accompanying this article isn't mine, it's by kind permission of Kerrdelune who writes Beyond the Fields We Know.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jungle Attack Plan Update

Quick update on the Jungle Attack Plan: We hired a strimmer (aka weed whacker) on Saturday and attacked the weedy 14 yard x 10 yard jungle on the allotment. We took down a fence that used to separate the two parts of the plot, and hacked about 90% of the weeds. But we shattered two strimmer blades in the process, and could not continue because we had no more blades.

We changed the plan a bit; we're no longer going to rotavate. Instead we laid weed supressing membrane over the cleared areas and heaped several inches of manure on top. Thanks to everyone who commented for all the jungle clearance advice. The membrane cost less than hiring a rotavator, and ought to be less work as well as more reliable at clearing the area.

I shifted 30 wheelbarrow-loads of manure today, and there's still lots more to do. There's still plenty of manure so that's no problem. I'll go to the allotment every day and pile on as much more as I can. Next weekend we'll hire the strimmer again and finish the job. As soon as the squash plants are big enough, we'll plant them out.

I took some "before" photos, but I didn't take my camera today so I have no "after" photos. I'll get some soon and show you what we accomplished. It's an amazing transformation. I feel knackered, but very happy.

Sunday Funnies

Tom pulling a funny faceTom's favourite joke at the moment: he approaches one of the allotmenteers and asks,

"Do you put manure on your rhubarb?"

When they say "Yes" he replies,

"That's funny - I prefer custard on mine".

Boom boom.

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

Cantankerous Frank Cartoon Panel

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review: Grow Vegetables

Grow Vegetables by Alan BuckinghamDorling Kindersley very kindly sent me some books to review. I'm very glad to receive free books. I'll also review CDs, chocolate and wine if anyone wants to send me some. One of the books they sent me was Compost by Ken Thompson, which I reviewed in March. The other is Grow Vegetables by Alan Buckingham.

As you'd expect from a DK book, the photography is gorgeous and the design is attractive and easy-to-use. Throughout the book, the author has borne in mind the different situations people might want to grow vegetables, from an allotment or a large garden down to a small veg patch in an ornamental garden, a patio, balcony or windowsill. There is something for everyone here, although if all you have is a windowsill you may prefer to borrow the book from the library rather than pay £16.99 for it.

The book seems to be aimed at beginners. For example it includes some extremely basic stuff, such as what does a hoe look like and what is it used for. That's a good thing - we all had to learn at some point, whether at our granddad's knee or from a book at a more mature age. All the basic stuff is covered in the first couple of chapters, titled The Perfect Plot and Vegetable Grower's Know-How.

After that it gets down to business, with sections dedicated to Cabbages and Leaf Vegetables, Root and Stem Vegetables, Peas and Beans, Salads, Fruiting Vegetables, Cucumbers and Squashes, Perennial Vegetables and Herbs. I think that's a very sensible way of dividing them up, collecting together types of vegetables that are cultivated in similar ways. It's better than putting them in alphabetical order as so many books do. That way runner beans, climbing French beans and dwarf beans are all in different places. If you want to look up a particular vegetable by name, there is a comprehensive index in the back of the book.

Within the chapters, each vegetable has a photograph, a description and instructions of how to grow it, and a little chart showing the "season". This shows you when to sow, transplant, and harvest the veg, but it only splits it into spring, summer, autumn or winter, rather than telling you the month. I think I understand the reaosning - not everyone lives in the same growing zone. I know that Stonehead in Aberdeenshire has a shorter growing season that we do in North Cheshire, whereas Stuart and Gabrielle of Permaculture in Brittany have rather longer. But I feel that just stating the season rather than the month is so vague as to be pretty useless. Almost all the vegetables say "Sow in spring, transplant in summer, harvest in summer or autumn". Well, duh!

However all is made up for in the following chapter, Vegetable Year Planner, which gives a month-by-month rundown of what to do in the vegetable garden each month. The final chapter is the inevitable Vegetable Doctor. It's the scary one with all the pests and deficiencies and diseases that might strike, very sensibly left to the end so hopefully it won't put anybody off.

The bottom line? I don't think I'll be offering this book as a competition prize, I think I'll be hanging on to it. That's probably the best review I can give.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Jungle Attack Plan

Alice wrote:
Rotovators are a NIGHTMARE! They chop all the soil up so it LOOKS fluffy, which doesn't actually serve any purpose. Then all the weed seeds that have been brought up by the digging start to sprout, and all your couch grass, bindweed, dandelions etc which have been chopped into little bits start growing a whole new plant from each little tiny piece... DON'T DO IT!!!I cleared most of my jungle-like plot by covering large parts at a time for one whole season. A layer of cardboard excludes light really well, then a layer of plastic e.g. bin liners to speed things up by excluding water, then something heavy on top to weigh it all down e.g. old carpet.Take it all off in late Autumn and dig something organic into the soil like manure, and off you go!

Actually I'm going to combine parts of this plan. The whole plan for the scary weedy jungle is as follows:

1. Strim all weeds to ground level
2. Rotavate
3. Plant 17 pumpkin, courgette and squash seedlings which we have been bringing on at home
4. Plant tall things such as sweetcorn and sunflowers amongst the pumpkins and squash

The thick broad leaves of the pumpkins will (with any luck) smother the ground and suppress any weeds that try to come up after rotavating. Potatoes might also work but it's a big area and we'd end up with a heck of a lot of spuds. I think I can barter pumpkins more easily than spuds. I'll take the courgettes we want to eat and the ones we don't want can rot on the vine for all I care.

The size of the area is what deters us from the cardboard and old carpet method. We really couldn't get enough cardboard and carpet to do it. In any case, I've found the same thing with that as you found with rotavating - the really bad weeds such as ground elder and couch grass just lie dormant under the carpet and they pop up again when you take it off, even after a whole year. There's no way to get out of forking all the roots up, but if we chop them into tiny pieces with a rotavator we'll put them back long enough to get our pumpkins established, backed up by daily hoeing.

After the first frost when the squash plants all deflate like popped balloons we will fork the area over and remove any remaining weed roots. Then if we can get it we'll cover the whole area with as much manure as we can - at least a few inches. Or we might go the green manure route, although Ed's not a fan of that.

That's our jungle attack plan. Phase one starts tomorrow.

Zilok Launches in the UK've still got a big weedy area on my allotment that hasn't been cultivated for years. It's a total jungle, we couldn't possibly tackle it all by hand. So we investigated hiring a strimmer and a rotavator to get it all under control.

Our nearest tool hire place wants £33 a day for a strimmer and £52 a day for a rotavator, which is pretty expensive.

There's probably somebody I know who has a strimmer and/or a rotavator in their shed. I've been asking everyone who I think is likely to have one, but I haven't got anywhere so far. Wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of database of who has what tools? Then when you wanted a strimmer or a power washer you could look up if anyone near you had the thing you want and was willing to lend it out. I'd pay money for a service like that.

It would work both ways wouldn't it? For example, my apple press and scritcher get used just a few days a year. If I could hire them out to other people I could recoup some of the cost. Or, as it was a gift, I could bring in a bit of income. I'm sure there are other things in my shed that don't get much use. The steam wallpaper stripper, for example, the kiln, the router. They could become nice little earners.

Fortunately someone has already thought of it. is a Rental Marketplace where anyone, individual or professional, can rent or rent out anything (from a fancy handbag to a drill, from tuxedos to digital cameras or even cars or baby strollers…). They call it “peer-to-peer renting”, or an eBay for rentals. There are star ratings like on Ebay so you can protect yourself by only renting from (or to) people with an established reputation. Or you will when it has been up and running for a little while. It was only launched this week, so when I went on it I couldn't find any strimmers or rotavators, and nobody has any stars.

I'll be keeping my eye on it. It sounds like a brilliant idea and I'm dying to try it out when it's properly running.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Save the Planet - Stop Shopping

ANti consumerist SantaI received a nice email from a reader who said:
I get frustrated with advice that amounts to don't drive/buy a hybrid car/convert to solar power/wrap yourself in sack cloth and live in a cave.
It bugs me too that so much green advice seems to boil down to "spend a lot of money, buy all this 'green' stuff". 'Green' is not a lifestyle choice. It's not a sort of fashion that is only available to the rich. The greenest people on earth are the poorest. They don't cause as much pollution, carbon emissions etc as we do because they can't afford to. It's we in the affluent countries who are causing the problems. And the solution isn't to buy a lot of green junk, but to buy less junk.

"Save the planet - buy less junk" is a great message because it's cheap - cheaper than your present lifestyle. It's easy and achievable as long as you take it in babysteps. If you get rid of your car, your tumble drier and you try to only eat food you've grown yourself, all starting on the same day, you'll soon get overwhelmed and give it up. But if you make just one change, take time to get used to it, and then make another one, you should find it's all pretty effortless. That's the thinking behind the monthly Bean Sprouts challenges.

The only real problem with this message is that you have to break the addiction of retail therapy. We're constantly bombarded with adverts telling us we'll be happy, attractive, popular if we only buy their product. A lot of the ads are based on clever and subtle psychology and they work. It's very difficult to break the spell (one way is to avoid advertising, get rid of the TV and don't buy any magazines or newspapers, but even then you'll see ads on billboards, on the Internet, inside shops, and on people's clothes - that's what logos are after all). It's easy to end up feeling deprived and miserable because you can't buy all the things you're told you "need". But of course they don't deliver what they promise. The products don't really make you happier, more attractive, more popular etc. So people keep shopping in the search for happiness.

I think that's the main obstacle in the way of a green revolution - consumerism. The green movement can't afford an advertising budget to counteract the degree of brainwashing we've all been subjected to for years. And the adverts steal and subvert green messages into their own consumerist domain anyway. That's why now so many adverts tell you "Buy our green car, buy our green clothes, our green detergent, our green gizmo". How do you persuade people to stop buying stuff? I dunno. Bean Sprouts is just my little drop in the ocean showing that a non-consumerist lifestyle is possible, and isn't about wrapping yourself in sackcloth and living in a cave.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Slow Cooker v Pressure Cooker - Differences

Slow CookerThis is the third in a series of articles comparing pressure cookers and slow cookers. The first article compared the nutrient content of food cooked with these methods. The second article looked at similarities between them. This article is about the differences between them. But first, a quick quiz:
  • Are you the kind of person who makes a weekly menu and sticks to it?
  • Are you very well organised?
  • Are you a morning person?
  • Do you enjoy casseroles, pot roasts, soups, chilli and curries?
If you answered "yes" then you'll probably love a slow cooker. You can prepare a meal in the morning, leave it cooking all day, and come in from work to a delicious home-cooked meal with no more work to be done.
  • Are you rather disorganised?
  • Do you wish you could have more home-cooked food but you hate to spend hours in the kitchen after a long day at work?
  • Do you enjoy casseroles, pot roasts, soups, chilli and curries?
If you answered "yes" then you'll probably love a pressure cooker. You can fling some ingredients in it and put it on the hob, then enjoy tender meat and thoroughly-cooked vegetables in a fraction of the time. But as you probably spotted, you can cook similar sorts of foods in both of them.

The main difference between them is how they work. A slow cooker uses a low heat for a long time. The food never reaches boiling point, but over several hours this low heat is enough to cook vegetables and meats right through. The slow cooker plugs in to an electrical outlet - you don't need a stove. I wish I'd had one when I was a student in halls of residence. A slow cooker draws very little power because it doesn't boil the food, so it's cheaper than conventional cooking methods. Many types of slow cooker have a removable crock that can be used as a serving dish. The lid on a slow cooker just sits lightly on top of the crock, it isn't sealed.

A pressure cooker lid, by contrast, has a tight seal. The lid contains a valve with a weight on top, so as you heat it on the hob the pressure builds up inside until the pressure is great enough to push the weight up and release a little bit of steam with a loud hiss that scares some people. This makes the pressure drop inside so the weight falls and the pressure starts to build up again. (There's really no reason to be scared of pressure cookers. They make a loud hissing noise, but there's nothing that can hurt you. They're a damn sight safer than a stepladder.) Because it is operating at more than atmospheric pressure, the temperature inside the pressure cooker reaches more than 100°C. A pan of stew or soup on your hob, with or without a lid, will never get hotter than 100°C. At this pressure and temperature, the food cooks much quicker, using less electricity.

Because of this, I use my pressure cooker a lot for cooking dried beans and pulses. Beans take hours to cook on the hob, so the pressure cooker saves a lot of time and money. Some beans (particularly red kidney beans and soya beans) contain toxins that are destroyed by heat. The high temperatures in a pressure cooker are more than enough to destroy these toxins so this is a safe way to cook dried beans. But you should never put soya or kidney beans in a slow cooker without cooking them first to destroy the toxins. The Vegetarian Society recommends pre-boiling all varieties of dried beans before slow cooking. Tinned beans of course are perfectly safe.

This was the third in a series of articles about slow cookers and pressure cookers. The final article in the series will have some recipes for these methods of cooking. Please keep emailing me your favourite recipes for slow cookers and pressure cookers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Carnival Roundup

This week, Bean Sprouts has been featured in the following blog carnivals:

Make it From Scratch included Zen and the Art of Mowing the Lawn

124th Festival of Frugality included Slow Cooker v Pressure Cooker - Nutrients

Carnival of the Green #127 included I Believe...

Green It included Gardening Leave

Why mention this? Four reasons:

1. It's good blogging etiquette to link back to blogs that link here. I don't always link back when someone links to me, but when I can incorporate a trackback into an informative blog post, I like to do so.

2. I like to support blog carnivals. I think they serve a useful purpose - many useful purposes actually. And so many of them seem to fizzle out after a few months, it's worth supporting the good ones.

3. If you're interested in what I write here on Bean Sprouts, you'll probably be interested in one or more of these carnivals because our interests overlap. Go and read them and see.

4. If you blog about one of these topics you should know these carnivals exist, and you should consider submitting your best posts to the relevant carnival. You might even think about hosting a carnival. It's hard work, but it is good fun. Whether you submit to a carnival or host one, it bumps up your readership for the week. It also boosts the number of sites that link to you. And (most importantly) it puts you in touch with other blogs and other posts that relate to your own topic.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Top Ten Compost Systems

dalek type compost binAs part of our Composting Challenge, Bean Sprouts presents the top ten composting systems.

1. Pile up organic stuff in a heap and wait
PROS: cheap, easy, effective
CONS: takes up space, quite slow

2. Build a compost box, either make your own or buy it like this one from Wiggly Wigglers.
PROS: more aesthetically appealling than a heap
CONS: they can be quite pricey if you buy them, you need a suitable spot in your garden

CompostBox3. Plastic compost bin, aka "dalek". You might be able to get a free or subsidised one from your council, visit the RecycleNow website to find out.
PROS: even tidier than a compost box, quite compact
CONS: you still need a garden or at least a patio

4. Tumbler, such as this one at Just Green.
PROS: supposed to be faster than a dalek, sounds quite good fun
CONS: space again, and are they easy to turn when they're full or do you have to be quite strong?

5. Green Cone
PROS: can compost cooked food, meat or fish, bones, dairy products which other composting systems can't deal with
CONS: They're not cheap, you need a garden with some earth as half of the system is buried underground.

Green Cone6. Leaf mould composting. There's a video about it here
PROS: make something useful out of fallen leaves, very easy
CONS: you need enough leaves to start with, takes a long time

7. Bokashi, an effective microorganism (EM) that speeds up composting incredibly. Here is the system sold by Wiggly Wigglers
PROS: very quick, can compost in a sealed bin indoors
CONS: cost, you have to keep buying the bran impregnated with EMs.

8. Trench composting - basically fill a trench with organic waste, cover it over, and plant on top. There are instructions on how to do this at Instructables
PROS: Cheap, you can combine this with the bokashi method by adding some EM impregnated bran to the trench to speed up composting
CONS: All that digging is hard work, you need a garden you're willing to dig up so maybe not suitable if all you have is lawn and flowerbeds

9. Wormery, such as these from Wormcity
PROS: some systems are suitable for indoor use, good if you don't have large volumes of compostable waste
CONS: if you get it wrong the worms can die, some people are squeamish about worms
10. Compost toilet, like these from NatSol
PROS: recycle your own humanure, modern ones look just like normal toilets
CONS: A lot of people might feel this is a step too far, you've got to remove the compost at the end of the process

If you decide to try one of these methods, please vote in the poll in the right hand side bar.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Good Life

Video clip from The Good Life. Features Penelope Keith in jodhpurs.

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

Cantankerous Frank cartoon panel

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Broody Hen

broody henOne of my young Rhode Island Red hens is broody. She is sitting on all the eggs and cannot be persuaded to move. She wants to hatch the eggs and have some chicks. She wants to be a mum.

The problem is, she isn't laying any eggs herself. She may not be eating or drinking either. Broody hens can die of hunger or thirst if they are just ignored. We've got to do something about it.

There are various techniques to stop her being broody. They all involve preventing her from settling down and getting comfy. For example, we could construct a broody coop - a suspended wire cage where she would be kept separate from the other hens until she gives up the idea of egg-sitting. The cage would be cosy and she would have water and food, so it's not as cruel as it sounds. Apparently it's usually successful within a few days. I've also heard of dunking the hen's undercarriage in cold water a couple of times a day. Now that does sound a bit cruel but I'm told it works. And I've seen an ingenious suggestion to replace the eggs with a frozen freezer block. You have to replace the freezer block a couple of times a day to keep it cold. I bet that would work a treat - the hen would have to be really determined to sit on that.

But there's another possibility - we could get some fertilised eggs and let her hatch them. Then in about three weeks we'd have chicks. It sounds like a lot of fun, but Ed very sensibly pointed out that we already have more eggs than we need, so we really don't need any more birds. Boo - what a spoilsport.

Chemical-Free Cleaning Tip

Wet dishclothIt seems really obvious once someone points it out, but I never thought of it before. To remove a really tough bit of dirt (e.g. dried-on Weetabix) on a table or floor, soak a dishcloth in hot water, wring it out, and place it on the stain for a while. Half an hour should do it. The Weetabix will soften and come off easily with no chemicals.

Thanks, Steph.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Save the Tree House

I saw this on Allotment Lady's blog. Someone who lives in her village built this tree house out of recycled materials, on his parents land and far away from any other houses. It's not a residence, it's just a project for some students who wanted to "opt out of the drink and drugs culture" and do something worthwhile instead. But now he and his friends are fighting to prevent it being pulled down under planning laws.

Visit the Treehouse website for more information about the project and more videos. If you want to support their fight, please sign the petition.


Growing celeryI've never grown celery before, but apparently this is how you do it. It needs support, so you sow it in three-feet-square blocks with a cane at each corner. You wind string around in this pattern. Then you can plant nine celery plants and they will all get support from the string. You can add more string higher up as it grows.

I've searched the internet, and I can't find anywhere else it recommends doing this. But this is the method told to me by my allotment gardening guru, so I'm going to stick with it and see how it turns out.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rhubarb Flower

Rhubarb FlowerDid you know that rhubarb has flowers? I didn't. It makes sense - most plants have flowers of some kind. Generally, gardeners like flowers on plants where you eat the fruit or the seeds. But they don't like them on plants where you eat the leaves, stem or root. Once a plant has made flowers and set seeds, it stops putting energy into the other parts of the plant. Last year some of my onions did it, and when I cut up the onion bulbs they were all hollow in the middle. So gardeners are alert to plants "bolting" (it means making flowers, often on the end of a tall stalk), and the chop the flowerheads off when they see them.

I've never seen rhubarb flowers before, but this year rhubarb is bolting all over the allotments. It could be that the weather conditions are right for flowering rhubarb. But I've long had a sneaking suspicion that bolting plants send some sort of chemical signal to their fellows. When you let one go, they all start. Of course, that would also happen if they were all responding to the same weather conditions. What do you think? Is my "chemical signal" theory just rubbish, or is there something to it?

Anyway, the wonderfully phallic rhubarb flowers had to get the chop. I winced when I did it, but they had to go, or they would have sapped the plant and I wouldn't get any lovely pink rhubarb to eat and make chutney out of.


By Patricia Grace

The Grandmother plaited her granddaughter's hair and then she said, "Get your lunch. Put it in your bag. Get your apple. You come straight back after school, straight home here. Listen to the teacher," she said. "Do what she say."

Her grandfather was out on the step. He walked down the path with her and out onto the footpath. He said to a neighbor, "Our granddaughter goes to school. She lives with us now."
"She's fine," the neighbor said. "She's terrific with her two plaits in her hair."
"And clever," the grandfather said. "Writes every day in her book."
"She's fine," the neighbor said.

The grandfather waited with his granddaughter by the crossing and then he said, "Go to school. Listen to the teacher. Do what she say."

When the granddaughter came home from school her grandfather was hoeing around the cabbages. Her grandmother was picking beans. They stopped their work.
"You bring your book home?" the grandmother asked.
"You write your story?"
"What's your story?"
"About the butterflies."
"Get your book then. Read your story."
The granddaughter took her book from her schoolbag and opened it.
"I killed all the butterflies," she read. "This is me and this is all the butterflies."
"And your teacher like your story, did she?"
"I don't know."
"What your teacher say?"
"She said butterflies are beautiful creatures. They hatch out and fly in the sun. The butterflies visit all the pretty flowers, she said. They lay their eggs and then they die. You don't kill butterflies, that's what she said."
The grandmother and the grandfather were quiet for a long time, and their granddaughter, holding the book, stood quite still in the warm garden.

"Because you see," the grandfather said, "your teacher, she buy all her cabbages from the supermarket and that's why."

Patricia Grace is a Maori writer of novels, short stories and children's books.

The image is from Repeating Patterns of Mimicry. Meyer A, PLoS Biology, Vol. 4/10/2006, e341 and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. In short: you are free to distribute and modify the file as long as you attribute its author(s) or licensor(s).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Waitrose 1 - Poynton 0

Poynton Waitrose aerial planNot long ago the Poynton Against Tesco campaign celebrated a victory over Tesco when their planning application was rejected by the council.

But now a very similar proposal by Waitrose has been accepted, perhaps due to less vigorous opposition by residents. We know that Tesco are appealing the original decision, and now that the Waitrose development is going ahead perhaps they will be more successful next time. After all if there is to be one large supermarket in Poynton, why not two?

I think if campaigning is to continue it needs to shift its focus. I was never very happy about being anti-Tesco in the first place because I don't naturally like being anti-anything. I'd much rather be pro-something. So now I'm going to be pro-local shops. I won't say "I'll never set foot inside Waitrose or Tesco", if they do get built. But I'm going to go all out to give Poynton's local shops as much support as I can.

Recycled Plant Markers

There's lots of ways to make recycled plant markers. I'm always baffled why you can buy them in the shops. Who would pay money for rectangular bits of plastic?

Margarine tubI've used yogurt pots, plastic milk containers, ice cream tubs, but this time I used an old margarine tub. You'll also need some scissors and a marker pen.

Cutting the margarine tubCut down the sides of the margarine tub to get lots of short plant labels suitable for plant pots. If you want longer labels suitable for the garden or allotment, you could cut down one corner of the tub, then cut horizontally. Or you could use a bigger container to start with.

Margarine tub cut into stripsWhen you have made lots of vertical cuts, snip all your rectangles off along the bottom.

Cutting up the base of the tubYou can use the bottom of the tub, too. Just cut it into strips.

Trimming the labelTrim one end of your label into a point to make it easier to push it into the earth.

Finished recycled plant labelMake sure you write with a permanent marker. It's really annoying if the plant names when you water them.

Daily Service

My choir, St George's Singers, are singing the Daily Service live on Radio 4 this morning. If you tune in to Radio 4 (198 LW) at 9:45 am you'll hear me (and a few dozen other people) singing two hymns and a Vaughan Williams piece. Don't worry if you miss it because you can listen again on the Radio 4 website afterwards. I'll post the link once it's up.

Update: To listen again, go to the Daily Service webpage. Find Listen again to the Daily Service and look for Wednesday 7 May, Crowned with honour and glory, Tony Rogers. Click on the Listen button. You'll need to have RealPlayer installed.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Start Composting Challenge

As it's Compost Awareness Week, May's challenge is to start composting. I'll be blogging about composting all through May, so look out for posts about different composting systems, benefits of composting, compost troubleshooting and anything else that occurs to me.

Please vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar if you're ready to take the challenge.

Hug Your Allotment Chairperson

View of the allotmentsOn our allotments, right next to the entrance, is a huge heap of manure. Someone laid a few paving stones to make it easier to get round this bog of eternal stench. The other day I was chatting to one of the plot-holders who was grousing about the paving stones.

"They should have made the stones more level. And they should put more down," she complained.
"Who is they?" I asked, "There is no they. There's only you, and me, and all the other plot holders here. One of us put the stones there. If you think there should be more, you do it."

I probably didn't make a friend that day.

But it makes me mad. Who is this invisible army of young, well-paid labourers who she thinks does all the work around the allotments? I'll tell you who. It's our allotment chairperson, and a couple of others on the committee. But they're not paid at all, in fact they have to pay rent on their plots the same as anyone else. Their average age is about 102 (warning - statistics in this blog post are made up). They have no budget, but when they see someone throwing out a few paving stones, or some old carpet, or some hawthorn hedge trimmings, they pick them up and bring them to the allotments to make good use of them. I've had a think about some other things I know they do, and I've made a list:
  • They mend the fences when hooligans break them
  • They repair the lawnmowers and keep them filled with petrol
  • They arrange the delivery of big piles of manure
  • They lay stepping stones to help people get past the manure
  • They put up with people whinging about the above two points
  • They liaise with the council, who own the allotments
  • They arrange delivery of compost, fertiliser, seed potatoes, onion sets and all the other things in the shed
  • They make sure they are on site to take delivery of these things.
  • They used to empty the toilet bucket, and now we have a chemical toilet they empty that (for that alone they deserve a medal)
  • They collect the rents and pay them to the council
  • They maintain the waiting list and the allocation of vacant plots
  • They keep their own plots in spic-and-span order
  • They dispense free advice to newbies

There's probably millions of other things I don't even know about. Even if you have complaints about your allotment association committee (and allotment-holders always seem to blame their committee for something-or-other), they deserve your gratitude and your respect.

So hug your allotment chairperson the next time you see him or her. Or at least shake his hand and say a heartfelt "Thank you". I'm sure a bottle of malt whisky wouldn't go amiss, if you feel so moved. They really do a heck of a lot of work for no reward at all, in fact they usually catch a lot of flack instead.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Carnival of the Green # 126

Bean Sprouts is proud to host the 126th Carnival of the Green. Thanks to the previous host, The Conservation Report, who hosted on April 28th.

All photographs come from the blogs featured. Click the photo to go to the blog.

Marguerite Manteau-Rao of La Marguerite offers When Blogging is not Enough, a heartfelt reflection on the limitations of green blogging, followed by a lively discussion from readers on its merits, and why blogging is a valuable tool in the climate fight.

Kleercut Campaign LogoJoel from Life Goggles offers a video review of a Fairtrade Soccer Ball, and finds out it takes 90 years to grow a box of Kleenex.

Earth Day Preachin' Misses the (M)Ark - Grist tries to faith-i-fy their Earth Day blogging with this sermon on Noah and the Ark by Ken Ward of the Unitarian-Universalist First Church in Jamaica Plain, Mass. Don Bosch at The Evangelical Ecologist says his reasoning for taking care of God's critters doesn't stand up to scrutiny

Chad of Digiblog offers Fore: Golf and the Environment, a discussion of the positive and negative contributions of golf to the environment.

Think Globally, Shop LocallyBeth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish offers Earth Day 2008: Pieces of a World that I Love, a moving photo essay remembering that our earth is more than some elusive green wilderness. It's everything around us every day.

Luann Rudolph of Take Back The Filter writes Take Back the Filter Catches Clorox’s Attention. Clorox responds to our effort but needs much more encouragement from consumers to develop a recycling program for BRITA cartridges in North America.

Lynn from OrganicMania also has issues with Clorox in Still No In-Store Refill Containers for Clorox Green Works. Companies "going green" need to explore all aspects of a product's environmental impact - including packaging.

Cat Killing a BirdArgh! No! I didn't want to read this! Sally Kneidel of Veggie Revolution offers Housecats Kill Hundreds of Millions of Birds Annually. She says:

Housecats kill hundreds of millions of American birds and small mammals every year, and it isn't "natural" predation. Read Veggie Revolution this week and find links to the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors! program, and the Humane Society's data showing that indoor cats are both healthier and much longer-lived.

I'm getting a kitten in a few weeks' time and once he's neutered he won't be an indoor cat. This is one of those issues that rouses strong feelings on both sides, as demonstrated by the comments on Sally's post.

Lill Hawkins of LILL’s LIST offers It’s Spring! Time to Think About A Greener Winter. After a long, cold, Maine winter, all we want to do is revel in the warmer days and spring pursuits, like gardening and getting outside. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we shouldn't be doing. It's even more important to think about winter in the spring than it is in the winter.

Another video entry from Joe of Green Thinking for the Average Joe in Hypercars - Crazy Efficient Cars Presented by Amory Lovins. A short summary of how much more efficient cars could be, and a great 10-minute video about hypercars.

Yoga matsNeil guest posts at Allie's Answers as part of his Cambodia Challenge to tell us about a yoga mat that's ecofriendly and effective.

L. Jordan Contreras of Guffly offers What the Filter, which describes the benefits of using reusable filtered water bottles.

That's it from this Carnival. The 127th Carnival of the Green will be published on May 12th at The Evangelical Ecologist.

Vegetarian Challenge Results

Vegetarian challenge chart

April's challenge was to eat a vegetarian meal a week. 176 people voted in the poll and the results were as follows:
  • I'll have a vegetarian meal each week! 13% (23 votes)
  • I already eat vegetarian at least once a week! 65% (115 votes)
  • Life without bacon is not worth living! 9% (16 votes)
  • I'm 100% vegan! 12% (22 votes)
Thanks to everyone who voted. I hope those of you who took up the challenge enjoyed your vegetarian meals, and keep up the habit of having a meat-free dinner once in a while.

A new challenge for May will be posted soon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Compost Awareness Week

May 4th - 10th is Compost Awareness Week. You can download Enjoy "a newsletter full of hints and tips to keep you composting". You can buy composting accessories. And I love this - you can search for Composting Events in your area.

But the best thing, I think, is the fun Flash game about composting.

Have fun!

Carpooling Video

Funny YouTube video about carpooling.
"Carpooling - it's a great way to help the environment. And besides, it's way better than disco or mullets"

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

Throbgoblins cartoon panel

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Starting to Look Like a Proper Allotment

Eleanor GardeningWell so much for the weather forecast. I went down to the allotment before 8am in case it rained later, but it stayed dry all day. At 10am I came back and picked up the rest of the family and we all stayed on the plot until 5pm. We weeded the garlic. It's looking good - I'm really keen for the harvest. I helped Eleanor plant her part of the allotment with sweet peas, pansies, violas and other multicoloured flowers. She didn't want anything edible in her part of the plot, just flowers.

We weeded, dug and manured a scary weedy area full of ground elder and dock. We sowed peas, planted cabbages, celery, and Jerusalem artichokes, and created an area for Tom. He wants to grow carrots, strawberries, blackberries and bananas. I asked him if he wanted any flowers, but he doesn't.

It doesn't sound much when I write it down, but we must have put in 15 back-breaking man-hours. I've caught the sun on my arms and the back of my neck. Ed says it's starting to look like a proper allotment.

Tomorrow if the weather stays good we'll weed the soft fruit and tackle another scary weedy area. I've still got some red cabbages and some onions (red and white) to plant, and I want to sow my runner beans. That will be the whole of the "old" part of the allotment, leaving only the new area to do. If some of the bits we've got now are scary weedy areas, that part is a terrifying jungle, but I'm determined to tame it this bank holiday weekend.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Gardening Leave

muddy fingers"Gardening leave" is usually a euphemism for someone being suspended from their job. But Ed actually took a day of his precious holiday time to work on the allotment.

We dropped the kids at school at 9am, and then spent all day at the plot. At 3pm I collected the kids from school whilst Ed remained on the allotment for another hour. Then we swapped shifts and I stayed on digging for another couple of hours. All told I think we did about 12 man-hours today.

We weeded about half the area we had last year (we have a new bit - a scary jungle to be tackled later). We dug and manured the bare areas and planted leeks, carrots, curled borecole, calabrese, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, and French marigolds. Yes I know it's supposed to be tagetes for companion planting, but I couldn't find any. And the main reason I wanted them is that I resolved to have more flowers on the plot, just for pleasure, so French marigolds are as good as anything.

We weeded amongst the overwintered shallots and broad beans, so now we can see how well they're coming along. We weeded and tidied the herb bed and planted some bronze fennel and rosemary for height at the back.

We strimmed the green manure I planted in late autumn and Ed dug it it. Ed says he does not like green manure, simply because he does not like the "digging it in" part. If anyone wants to tell us that part is not necessary, we'd be pleased to hear from you. In any case, there is an enormous pile of the brown sort of manure and we made good use of it, so the green type seems unnecessary.

Fortunately the weather remained glorious all day. The forecast says heavy rain over the weekend, although Monday (a bank holiday here in the UK, and the reason for Ed's non-euphemistic gardening leave) is forecast to be fine. We'll see. When it's fair, we'll garden, and when it's pouring, we'll do something else. When you put it like that, the forecast is neither here nor there.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Spring Clean for the May Queen

Cattle LoveIt's May 1st - May Day, Beltane, Walpurgis Night, whatever turns you on. Like a clock that chimes the hours to remind us of the turning day, these festivals remind us of the turning year. In the case of May Day, spring is passing into summer and the festivals at this time of year emphasise flowers, dancing and fertility in its earthiest sense. The Maypole, the May queen, 'Obby 'Oss, the Furry Dance and the other components of May Day celebrations all tend to be about fertility.

It's hardly surprising. Everywhere I look I can see animals trying to attract mates. The blue tit who is working his little rocks off furnishing the bird box in my back yard is doing that because he hopes to attract a mate. Dad reports the swallows are flying acrobatically in a very different way than when they are hoovering up as many insects as possible - they are showing off their flying prowess in fierce competition for mates. And in the field behind my house, the cows have been joined by the bull. Poor bull spends most of his year all by himself, but this is the season when he gets to hang with the ladies and do what bulls like to do. The sap is rising and all creatures are trying to make babies, so they can feed the babies whilst food is plentiful through the summer, so that by the winter time the young ones are strong enough to survive the cold hungry time until next spring, when it all starts all over again.

Some people think that there's too much sex on TV, movies, magazines and so on nowadays. I disagree. I think the problem is that the media show a weird, distorted view of sex - it's all about impossibly perfect photoshopped young women's bodies being ogled by men. There is no recognition at all in the media of sex for old people, sex for fat people, sex for just ordinary normal people. You don't see women enjoying sex, you don't see sex in the context of a relationship (it's well known that married people don't have sex), and nothing about fertility or making babies. In fact we all seem to become terribly prudish whenever anyone refers to sex in those contexts. I'd like to see a return of a natural, lusty, earthy approach to sex, with an absence of embarrassment and hang-ups. Maybe I should erect an enormous Maypole in the middle of Poynton park. Would you join me?