Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008 Reflections

Beauty That Moves
Looking back on 2008 I realized there are many ideas and practices that my family has made part of our daily rhythm, things that were once new and deliberate now feel effortless and natural. Some of them have been by choice, others by necessity. So, here is a list of things we have done in 2008 to become a more self-sufficient and sustainable family... while living on a very small amount of shady land in the city.

1. Haven't bought a roll of paper towels since the last one was used up in June.
2. Keep a drawer in the kitchen of 'kitchen rags' - various sizes of clean, folded rags for use around the kitchen. Many of them are quite small (4"x4") to take care of small things like oiling the cast iron pans while keeping laundry to a minimum.
3. Now making all of our own bread.
4. Learned how to can and filled my pantry with jams, jellies and sauces.
5. Found a great recipe for homemade spaghetti sauce, make huge batches (several gallons) at a time and freeze individual meal portions.
6. My husband hunts (has for years), this was a good year and the freezer is filled with venison for the meat eaters in the house.
7. Planted a vegetable garden in our very shady yard. Had great success because we were realistic about what we could and could not grow in shady conditions... turns out we can grow enough kale, green beans and cucumbers for the whole neighborhood!
8. Discovered the 'second rate' apples for sale at our orchard for almost 1/2 the price of regular. Their idea of seconds is superior to most grocery stores idea of perfect. 100 pounds were purchased. Now apple pie has become my favorite gift to give!
9. Switched to cast iron pans this summer, all second hand.
1o. Making our own dishwasher soap.
11. Making our own laundry soap.
12. Adam (husband) made me a great rack for drying ziploc bags.
13. Making homemade all-purpose household cleaning spray.
14. Started a barter work exchange at my daughter's school to help offset the tuition cost.
15. Switched to only cloth napkins - thirfted linen in brand new condition!
16. Emily (my eleven year old) has learned to knit hats and made one for everyone this Christmas.
17. Sewed a few shirts for myself.
18. Have developed a small arsenal of very frugal recipes (will post about this sometime!).
19. Thermostat stays at 65 or lower, usually lower.
20. We drive as little as possible - even with the new lower gas prices. We are fortunate to live within 5 minutes of just about anything we could need, a benefit of city living.
21. We hang out at the library on Saturdays for fun. And it's free!
22. If we need or want something, we will hold out for a long time to see if it can be found second hand. It usually can be - I love my $8 food processor! This becomes a game for us, we also have a wonderful flea market 5 minutes from our house which is a thrift/green/frugal persons version of the mall. :)
23. The green scrubbies that are used to wash dishes - I cut them in 1/2 when removing them from the package. They last twice as long.
24. We began composting this year!
25. Making our own convenience foods - homemade crackers anyone?
26. Focusing on home based business more as a means to provide needed income while being present for my daughter.
27. Deepened our connection to community by participating in our Farmers Market with my handmade wares.
28. Got rid of our microwave - a personal preference.
29. Spending less. Spending less. Spending less.
30. UPDATED We only buy boxed wine now ;) - saving money, shipping weight, and packaging. The quality of boxed wine has greatly improved over the last few years. Thank you Carrie for reminding me that I do this!

in the kitchen

I look forward to 2009 with all of it's fresh potential, each day on this path to simplicity is new and exciting. It's not about being perfect, it's about living with intention.

It is the difference between thinking something is a good idea for someday, and putting what you can into action today.

My sister recently wrote about one small action she has taken in her home (she has taken many). I thought it was a creative and resourceful example of taking action, today.

I wish all of our readers a very blessed and peaceful 2009. If you have a moment, we would love to hear a few (or many!) of the ways your family has simplified over the past year. Your comments always add great inspiration to The Co-op. Thank you and Happy New Year!

Monday, 29 December 2008

The realization...

Notes From The Frugal Trenches

This month I had a much anticipated, longed for holiday in Asia. I booked the holiday with friends more than 18 months ago. At the time of booking I was as excited as a child on Christmas Eve, only a lot has happened in 18 months and by the time the holiday rolled around I was pretty sure I didn't want to go. I did, of course, go on the holiday and made the best of it, but the holiday represented a great change in me. When I booked the holiday, I wanted to explore more of the world, travel to more exotic places like my friends have done, learn a new culture, and have more countries on my world map that I can tick off as having been to, only through the course of this simple, green, frugal living my motivations have shifted. Suddenly I care less about how much "better" I'd be and look by traveling and instead am far more concerned about the impact my choices have on the environment, the good the money could have done for others, the family and the de-stressing time I missed before the holidays.

The reality is I did bring many of my new values to my trip, while my friends were purchasing souvenir after souvenir, I can hand on heart say I only purchased two things and they were to go to a poor family we met. I continued to eat local food where possible, didn't eat meat and always opted to travel by foot, train and bus instead of taxi. Only the whole time I was there, I had a feeling that these days of travel were coming to a close.

Traveling is a good thing, it helps to open our minds, expose us to new cultures, help us practice new languages we are learning....but it isn't the be all and end all that many of us professional, career driven Brits think it is. I remember when I was at a dinner party in the summer with many media execs, I mentioned the trip and said I hadn't actually had a holiday abroad in more than 2 years and these people had looks of horror on their faces. There were incessant questions as to why, and it became somewhat of a question time about where had I been and certainly an opportunity for them to brag about where they had been. I learned a very valuable lesson that night, these people may be far more well traveled than I, but they had closed minds and traveling was far more about a conversation starter then I life changing experience.

One day I'd like to do extended volunteer work abroad, but before then I have one more trip abroad (happening in the next week) and then I for one will be very happy to spend the next few years having simple, green and frugal holidays. Time away from telephones and the tv, time walking in nature, eating British scones, swimming in the sea, learning new skills like farming techniques, spending evenings curled up by a log fire and enjoying a week or so of the simple life. You see, once you start on this journey you too may realize it effects every area of your life, it becomes your motivation behind the decisions you make, it become the choices you make even about where and how you holiday. In fact, speaking of holidays, I think I'd like to give camping in a yurt a go, I don't think you can get much more simple, green or frugal. I for one can't wait.

Winter Driving Emergencies

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Please forgive our lack of recent posts - we co-writers are undergoing a bit of re-organization here on the Co-op blog, and are adding some new members. We also have an uncredited team member, Sharon, our tech support and editor. She thought this recent post from my own blog would be timely and useful information here as well:

I check in on what's happening with Annette, over at the Ward House quite often. She wrote about being unexpectedly stranded by the weather recently, and about how unprepared they were. Luckily, friends lived nearby, but she asked about what she should have had in the car to be more prepared for a winter emergency. I've had a lot of experience driving alone over snowy mountain passes, so I responded with what is currently in my car. I thought maybe others could benefit from hearing what I keep in my car for winter driving emergencies, so I'm expanding my comment into this post. Maybe this will spark some ideas of what to stash in your own winter vehicle.

Behind my driver's seat I keep a rolled-up fleece blanket, a roll of paper towels (to clean off spattered headlights and windows), a big bottle of water (mainly for cleaning spatters too, but drinkable in an emergency), an ice scraper and a snow brush. Underneath the seat are an umbrella, a billed hat, and old but still usable wiper blades. In the glove box I keep a flashlight and extra batteries, spare glasses, and sunglasses. I always have my purse, with sunscreen and chapstick.

In the trunk is a box holding an old pair of felt-pack boots (the rubber uppers are held together with duct tape, but they'll work in an emergency) stuffed with a billed cap, knit hat, gloves, knee-high wool socks and a couple of kerchiefs, plus an old down army-surplus mummy sleeping bag liner and some candles and matches in a tin can. There's also a small folding military-type shovel. I can get to these items from inside the car by folding down the back seat if necessary. To keep the box (and other stuff) from sliding back and forth in my trunk, I put down a couple strips of no-slide drawer liner/chair pads. The rest of the trunk is empty most of the time, eliminating excess weight to increase fuel efficiency.

The bottom of my trunk lifts up, allowing access to a small compartment that holds the spare tire (it's one of those weeny wheels, not a full-size spare). I've managed to fit quite a bit of emergency supplies into that compartment. Wrapped around the tire are a tow rope, a set of jumper cables, and tire cables (there isn't enough clearance in my wheel wells for chains). Tucked in alongside and over the top are half a bag of kitty litter, a mechanic's jumpsuit, a small towel, an old jean jacket, and a big plastic hooded poncho to either wear or put down on the ground while putting the cables on. Over where the jack is stored is enough room for a survival knife. Things I really should have, but don’t, are a cell phone and those reflective stand-up triangles (or flares, but I prefer re-usable items).

A few more words about using tire chains (or cables): when you have to put them on, it's guaranteed to be sloppy, cold, and wet out. If you know ahead of time that you'll have to be putting chains on up ahead, it's better to put them on while you're still in the parking garage. If that's not possible, get as far off the travel lane someplace you're still able to get back on the road. Having some kind of plastic to kneel on can help keep you from getting soaked. Here in the Sierras, there are often guys that can get your chains on and off for you - but they only take cash, so carry a couple of tens or twenties. Chains need to be tightened with a rubber ring with hooks on it. That rubber can degrade and crack apart over time, so check each winter to see if you need to replace those.

Try to drive on the "top half" of your tank. Cold weather can increase condensation inside a near-empty gas tank, causing problems, and you don't want to be worrying about running out of gas while you wait for an accident up ahead to be cleared. If you do end up stranded out on the open road, it's better to stay in your car - tie a kerchief to the antenna to signal that there's someone inside. Try to stay as dry as possible. If you're running the engine (preferably only periodically) to stay warm, make sure the tailpipe isn't blocked with snow. Tragically, three young Squaw Valley employees died near here a couple of days ago, in their snowed-in car, from carbon monoxide poisoning. Check the road and weather conditions before you leave, let someone know where you're going, and again when you arrive. Being prepared may help prevent a tragedy.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Babysitting Clubs

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

Whilst the Co-Op Blog is undergoing some changes, I thought I'd pop in with a timely post. With all of the end-of-year holiday celebrations happening in many parts of the world around now, childcare is something you might need to consider...

A babysitting club is one way to organise a fair system of reciprocal childcare. By formalising childcare arrangements everyone’s needs are better met. Each club will develop its own rules, devised by members at an initial meeting. Each club requires a secretary to keep records of members and points exchanged. Clubs are most often set up between a group of friends, but could also be created between families within a neighbourhood, kindergarten or by advertising locally. Obviously, when the other families are not well known to you, meetings will need to be held initially, until the children are comfortable with each other and their carers.

Here is a list of one club’s rules:
- Organise your own babysitter from the contact list. Ring secretary to arrange payment of points (handy to keep a standard record sheet for all members). Keep your own personal record to check against the quarterly statement. An administration fee may be charged by the secretary, or members may take turns keeping records.
- If children are being cared for over a mealtime, supply children’s meals and snacks (unless otherwise arranged).
- Remember to inform babysitter of any health problems, allergies, rules and contact phone numbers.
- Everyone’s points balance starts at zero. Members should attempt to establish a zero or positive balance before leaving the club.
- Prospective members are required to turn up to a meeting or social get-together to meet other members.

- For the first child – at carer’s home: 2 points per half hour – at child’s home: 3 points per half hour.
- For subsequent children – “half price”.
- Double points after midnight.
- An example: Sue cares for Mary’s two children at Mary’s for 2 hours. Mary pays Sue 18 points, being 12 points for the first child (3 points x 4 half hours) and 6 points for the second child (@ “half price”).
- The points are not dollars, and are only redeemed through reciprocal care.
- When leaving the club you forfeit any points owing to you. Please try not to leave the club owing points.

Members List
- Requires name, partner’s name, children’s names, address, all contact numbers.
- Distributed to each member and kept up-to-date.
- Personal information may be left off if the club is large, for security.

Babysitting clubs are a way of sharing resources fairly amongst like-minded friends. They allow members to access the childcare they need in a system that ensures reciprocal benefit.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Introducing Gavin

posted by Gavin

The Greening Of Gavin

When Rhonda invited me to join the co-op, I was flabbergasted, but honoured to be asked to join. I had been following the formation of the blog from the start, and have been very impressed with the growing repository of information from a wonderful and committed group of simple living, green thinking, and frugal global citizens! Well done so far team. Hopefully, I can add the knowledge that I have accumulated in the two and a bit years since I made a determined effort to lower my carbon footprint. In the process, I have found that simple living is the only way to go, and all the benefits that go with this lifestyle have to be experienced to be believed.

It is hard to determine where to start, so maybe describing my green epiphany is a good icebreaker. My life changed back in September 2006, after I saw the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", in which Nobel laureate Al Gore takes you on a journey and explains the impact of Climate Change. It had just been released, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and my employer kindly sponsored a group showing of the movie. Well what an eye opener and a real aha moment! A wave of emotion came over me. I felt guilty, angry, sad, overwhelmed, and then a funny thing happened, something I had never experienced in my life. I felt that I personally had to do something to fix this mess that I had been partly responsible for making. I thought that my first action should be to walk from the cinema back to the office, which was about a 5km journey. I didn't really think this through very well because I was wearing new shoes and the blisters I got from the walk were the size of 20c pieces, but there was no way I was going to add anymore CO2 into the atmosphere, after what I had just learned. The walk helped me gather my thoughts and develop the resolve required to carry out my new life goal.

When I eventually arrived at the office, my head was spinning. I wanted to learn more, to really understand the issue, and to see what simple actions I could take to lower my carbon footprint and that of my family's. I remember hitting the 'net and just spent the rest of the day finding out how I could make a difference. Green was a new colour for me, and until that time I had been a conspicuous consumer of all that was bad for the planet. I was surprised that many of my co-workers were not impacted emotionally as I had been. Possibly the message went straight over their heads.

When I got home for the evening, I tried to explain how I was feeling, but they didn't understand what a roller coaster I had just been on. Their knowledge of climate change was as limited as mine had been before I saw the documentary. It would take some weeks before I managed to get a copy of the movie to show the family.

It was a month of confused thoughts, lots of research and many fruitful discussions with family members. Until my wife, Kim had her own epiphany after she watched the movie, she thought I was having a mid-life crisis and an extra-marital affair! It was a crisis alright, but not the one that some men have at my age. It was a Climate Crisis, and I was determined to reverse the effects of it.

As they say, the rest is history, and my personal blog, The Greening Of Gavin, chronicles my journey towards a sustainable lifestyle on every step of the way. I look forward to contributing to this global community and believe that this opportunity has come at just the right time in my life so that I can help others take the first step on their own Simple, Green and Frugal journey.

Gavins Garden

Changes and improvements

We are aiming for daily postings at the co-op so that every time you come here to read, there will be new and interesting information that will help you on your way towards a more simple, green and frugal life.

We've invited several new writers to join us and I'm sure you'll agree they are great additions to the team of writers we already have working here. The new comers write the blogs: Throwback at Trapper Creek, Living the Frugal Life, The Greening of Gavin and The Compostbin - they are all on our blog list to the right, so click on them to see for yourself what you'll be in for when they start posting.

Our daily postings will start shortly, in the new year. I'm sure you'll understand that many of us have commitments over the holidays but as soon as we're organised, there will be an uninterrupted flow of posts here.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.

Friday, 19 December 2008

How and Why I got started with Organic Raised Bed Gardening

Posted by Marc from Garden Desk

Paul (a posse ad esse) has recently posted here about his square foot gardening methods and about his raised beds. I'm glad he did because it really got me thinking about my raised bed efforts. Actually it was several weeks ago when he posted video of his garden bed layout that started me thinking. Raised beds and Square Foot Gardening are becoming very popular and common with garden bloggers. For example, Rhonda's raised bed garden looks great.

It is my experience that almost no one I actually know in person gardens this way. Everyone around me here in Kentucky grows vegetables single file in long rows. So why do those of us who use raised beds do so? I have been gardening this way for nearly twenty years and blogging for three years and I have never talked about why I feel this is a superior way to grow vegetables.

Here is a picture of part of my raised bed garden from this past season:

Before I go on a rant about the benefits of raised beds, let me tell you a little story of how I arrived at raised bed, square foot organic gardening.

When I was a child, my mom had a garden with corn, beans and cabbage. She planted them in long rows and part of my chores was to weed those rows. I found the hoe to be clumsy and I often chopped right through a young been or corn plant. The work was hot and monotonous. I vowed that when I grew up, I would never have a vegetable garden! My mom stopped raising a garden when I was in high school (thank goodness) and gardening for me was all but forgotten.

While I was in college my mom re-married and my new Step-Dad decided to have a garden. He chose to locate it in what used to be a large tobacco field that was tended for us by a neighboring farmer. Since the field was much bigger than he needed, and I would be spending the summer with him and my mom, he approached me about vegetable gardening with him. He also wanted to recognize that I was growing up, so instead of getting me to work on his garden he offered to let me have one half to tend on my own. I don't know why I even entertained the thought, but I agreed. I knew nothing about growing vegetables or even which vegetables would grow in our area. I went to the college library to research it and luckily I happened upon a book about organic gardening with French intensive techniques. It was published by Rodale and outlined how to create raised beds with double-digging and mounding up soil from the paths. It described how to use block planting (what Mel Bartholomew calls Square Foot Gardening), trellises, companion planting, succession planting, using compost and other organic techniques. Wow - this book got me excited!

Summer arrived and it was time to start the garden. My step-dad bought a new fancy tiller to prepare his plot. I used my youthful energy to dig a series of raised beds but only used half of my allotted space. He planted long rows of many different veggies; I planted them in blocks. I got a job cutting grass with a landscape service and brought home bags of grass clippings and bags of straw. With these I set up a series of compost heaps and learned how to create finished compost every three weeks. He used chemical fertilizers and pesticides; I used compost. My step-dad weeded with his big tiller; I pulled weeds by hand until the plant leaves touched and shaded out the weeds.

We had two major problems that both of us faced. The first one was rabbits! This location was far away from the house and rabbits began eating everything, especially the green beans. I'm not sure what my step-dad did to combat them, but I utilized a tip from my Rodale book. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) was a hairdresser at the time so she collected all of the hair clippings that the beauty shop swept up. We brought home bags and bags of the hair and spread it all around and in my part of the garden. The human scent actually kept the rabbits away - especially since there were more veggies lined up on the other end of the field without the human scent! My step-dad's beans were eaten by rabbits; my beans were eaten by us!

The second big problem was watering. He bought a fancy pump and hose system to pump water from the creek; I watered with buckets and jugs. He had the advantage here at first - until the drought hit. The creek completely dried up and so did much of his long rows of veggies. I carried milk jugs of water out and placed them in the middle of the beds as drip irrigation. I repeated this technique two years ago and wrote a post with pictures if you are interested.

Now back to my story, my step-dad's garden took up 3/4 of the field and I had the other 1/4 but my side yielded twice as much produce! Not everything I did that year was a success, but seeing the side-by-side comparison was amazing. I was hooked on gardening from then on. Too bad I was almost finished with college at this point. If I had just been starting, I would have switched my major to horticulture.

That year my raised beds were only mounded soil, similar to this Amish garden that I got to visit this summer (but not as pretty, I'm sure):

Now, I use untreated lumber for most of my raised beds and try to grow as much vertically as possible.

I have even been experimenting with using cinder blocks and making the beds deeper.

Wow, this post has become pretty lengthy and I still didn't adequately describe all of the benefits to gardening this way. Tell you what, I'll do just that in my next post. I have some diagrams to show you as well.

I'd like to hear from you - do you grow vegetables in rows, in blocks or in raised beds? I'm not putting down any of the methods. It is important to garden the way that works for you. Next time I will sow you more what works for me, but what about you - what problems do you see with either method? What kind of success (or failure) have you had?

Re-Usable Present Wrappings

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I'm not talking about re-using wrapping paper, although it can be done. Young mothers-to-be used to carefully undo the wrapping on their baby shower gifts so as to reuse the pretty paper as drawer liners in the nursery. Creases could be removed from ribbons by running them around a hot lightbulb, but that won't work with the cool swirled tubes that are now in my lamp fixtures (although a quick pass with a warm iron would still work). I'm also not talking about the advice you'll see in just about every home magazine to "make the wrapping part of the gift." However, that is a good idea, especially if you're sending presents off to somewhere else.

What I'm talking about is starting some kind of tradition within your own home. My in-laws had a couple of brightly-printed Disney garment boxes that would end up under the tree every year. I have them now. They fold down flat for storage along with the rest of the Christmas stuff, and are the perfect size to hold a book or new shirt - no wrapping required. Gift bags, too, get used year after year.

You probably have your own traditional gift wrappers already - the kids' stockings you hang up every year as part of your decor. So now, just expand that idea a little farther. I know Julie, one of my co-writers here, wrote about sewing re-usable fabric gift bags not too long ago. Of course, she might have to tie some good knots into the ribbons closing them up to keep the kids from peeking, but it's a really good idea. If you're not a sewer, you might be able to do the same thing next year with Christmas pillowcases found on the January clearance sale tables. Canning jars are also great re-usable packaging - whether giving home-canned preserves or gifts in a jar. Maybe your recipient will reuse them, or let them know they can always return the empties to you. We often come home to find empty jars, ale bottles, and egg cartons left by our front door.

We have one more option here at our house. Over the years, I've amassed quite a collection of Christmas tins. Some are used year round - the red one holds buttons, a tall popcorn tin holds toys for when friends with young children stop by to visit. During the rest of the year, some of them make crush- and dust-proof storage containers for my lights and Christmas linens; others all nest, one inside the other like Russian dolls, for storage. But at Christmas time, they all end up under the tree - so many that I purposely leave the bottom tier of branches in the box to have enough room (that's Aries' first bicycle, down out of the garage rafters, completing the display). Some will periodically end up on my kitchen counter through the season, holding home-baked goodies until I put together little gifts for the neighbors. But others we use to hold our gifts to each other. Of course, we're adults here, operating (I hope) on the honor system. If you pick up a tin to use, and there's something already in it, it goes back under the tree until Christmas. No peeking!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

SFG's Fast and Loose II

Posted by: Paul Gardener
A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)

The following post was originally posted on my personal blog this last summer and is being reposted here as a follow up to my previous post. Some notes have been added to update the information.

So then... on with my documenting some of the ways that I've adapted my SFG'ing methods. Below is a picture of 5 of 6 raised beds. They are 4x6 and are lined up along the north end of my yard.
You may have noticed that there are no grids... I don't use them. This isn't so much because they don't make sense, they do. I do use the same general spacing guidelines, but I also like to keep things a little more fluid as far as how I plant things together and I hated working around the grid; really it's just a personal preference thing.
Above, the nearer bed is one of the ones that I had tomatoes in last year and the year before. I am rotated the crops this year to keep the plants healthy, so they were planted in the furthest bed. This also shows how I had built some 2x2 frames to tie up the tom's with. I lined the plants up one/sq ft. along the back edge of the beds and ran strings up to the top beam of the frame.
This is a close-up of the basic construction of the corners of the frame. I used salvaged OSB from a construction site and some ripped in half 2x4's (2x2's would work and are fairly cheap.) basic grabber screws and a triangle piece have held them fast for over three years now. No complaints about them. I'll be making some new ones this year only because I am changing the configuration of the plants, but I'm sure these will be re-used somewhere else in the garden.
Connecting them to the box was also just basic 2.5 inch grabber screws straight in. Now how to trellis??
Twisted, nylon mason line. This stuff is my fave in the garden. it cost barely more than the standard twine, but if your careful and creative with how you tie things, you can re-use this stuff for a couple of years. Basically, instead of cutting and tying each individual piece that I need, I take a little extra time to wrap most of my trellises as one continuous loop. This allows the string to be unwound and put up at the end of the year, and re-used next year. This is incredibly durable stuff if used right. Get some, and oh yeah, carry a little butane lighter with you if your going to need to cut it or it'll fray like mad!
Here is another idea that I tried out this year. It's not in the SFG book, but it passes the common sense test so it's worth a try. I purchased a couple of pieces of welded concrete reinforcing mesh, the stuff they sink into concrete slaps to make it stronger, for approx 5.00 apiece. I cut each in half lengthwise and bent them in half again to make a grid A-frame. They are only about 3.5 feet height, but I have four of them next to each other and have planted peas around the entire footprint of each Frame (18 per side, 36 per Frame x 4 for 144 plants.) As the peas reach the top of the frame, I intend to wire on another A-frame between Frame like stacking cards. this should give me a 6 foot+ pea frame. Again, we'll see, It's all about the learning.
To maximize space, I planted my Baby greens underneath the peas to grow. They help shade the ground keeping it cooler and more moist, and in the summer heat, the peas should shade them, letting me get a longer harvest. I find that you always have to be thinking about how plants can help each other out, and share the same space when your growing in such a small area. (note: This trellising for the peas and salad greens worked great this year! The only thing I would change would be to put it in a raised bed where I can access both sides of it instead of putting it against the fence line.)
Speaking of small area gardening. This is my big experiment for this year (to be added to the countless small ones no doubt.) I am growing 9 pots of potatoes. These large tree pots that I was able to get from a local nursery for zero dollars, FREE, yep my favorite price. You'd be surprised what people want to give away if you just ask. Anyway, I planted two seed potatoes in each one and the theory is that as the plant grows I will add straw around it covering the leaves. The stem will continue to push ever higher in it's attempt to get sun, and I will put a mesh column around the plant and keep mulching it. I have already covered the plants once with straw and they are poking out the top already. The potatoes on a potato plant actually grow not from the roots, but from the stem of the plant, thus the reason they are traditionally mounded, this method is supposed to allow for a much greater harvest from a smaller area.
OK, this goes out directly to ruralaspirations in regard to her issue with the cost of building her metal trellises per Mel's instructions. I also found that the conduit piping was fairy affordable, but would not get it myself because of the obscene price of the corners. (Do those dang corporations know how to stick it to you or what?) Until this year, when I will be trying one of them out. What changed my mind? That little piece of plastic above. It is an double threaded elbow for PVC pipe, 3/4 inch I believe, that fits very snug on the ends of the half inch conduit pipe. The key here is double threaded, because it's the threads that make it fit tight. There it is, my cheapo elbow. It may have issues in the heat of the summer, I can't say yet that's why I'm only going to try one of them (for .59 cents apiece I can afford to try it), but this is the type of stuff that I like to do in the garden, try this and that. Maybe only this works but that fails, I keep plugging away at it, little by little the garden gets better. I get better too for that matter, I learn that trying things is OK, and so is failing. Now is the time for us to take these opportunities. The future may hold tighter times when heading over the learning curve will hurt a lot worse.
(Additional note: This worked great this year. I did end up putting some holes in each of the metal pipes ends and wiring them together diagonally to reinforce. Worked great.)

Keep your mind open to the possibilities, and don't get to caught up in the minutia. I look at gardening less like a science and more like a painting. You try this or that, add something here take away a little there, it's a work in progress.
Grow on!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Handmade and Recycled

Beauty That Moves
While many of us are still in the season of holiday preparations, I thought I'd share one more simple, frugal and yes, green, gift idea. You might need to take a leap of faith on this one, but I think there is a powerful message with a gift like the one I am about to describe.
Start by making a simple tote/book bag. If you are someone who sews and already has a stash of fabric on hand, this sort of project is a great stash buster. Heavier, home dec. weight fabrics are great for the outside. Part of this gifts beauty is trying to make it with recyled, or already on hand fabric. I made six of these in an afternoon one year, and all of the women on my list got a new book bag! Here is a link with instructions to make a similar one of your own:

Super Eggplant Tote Bag

Now, for the part of this gift that might be a little out of the box for some. But haven't we discovered by now that living inside the box is so dreadfully boring? Living simply and taking chances go hand in hand.

Our local library has the most incredible used book sale a couple of times a year. It is a wonderful place to pick up a great pile of reads for very little money. Of course tag sales and flea markets are as well. I picked up this pile of magazines at a tag sale this summer, paying .25 cents a piece. And they are actually three of my favorite cooking magazines. Their condition was perfect!

Would it be so outrageous to slip a nice little stack of previously enjoyed books or magazines into a lovingly made tote bag? Not at all. Here is the most important detail... don't try to pretend the books are brand new! The most powerful, impressionable part of this gift idea is the hand written note that you will enclose.

"May you find much enjoyment in this meaningful gift.
The bag was handmade by me with love, using recycled materials.
The books were previously loved by others.
This gift was put together with intention,
to show one simple way we can walk a little more gently on the earth."
Of course this is just an example, make it your own. Even those on your gift list that you imagine might turn their nose at such an idea (used books? gasp!), try it. You just might give them something to think about.

From my home to yours, wishing you all peace and joy through the holidays.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Holidays & Gifts: Kids' Stuff

Posted by Julie
Towards Sustainability

It's coming up to school holidays time, and I know I'm trying to prepare for the inevitable "Mum, I'm bored!" pleas. We have a number of homemade mixes I like to make up in advance, and my kids can't get enough of these; they're cheap to make using regular household ingredients, they weren't shipped halfway across the world in brightly-coloured plastic containers, and they don't contain any dodgy chemicals or colourings.

As it is also the gift-giving season, these also make fabulous, cheap presents for the young ones in your life or their friends.


1 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup salt
3 teaspoons cream of tartar (found in the baking aisle of the supermarket)
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
A few drops of natural food colouring, if desired.

* Combine the flour, salt and cream of tartar in a saucepan. Combine the oil and water (and food colouring if you are using it), and mix into the dry ingredients in the saucepan.
* Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and dough-like, and it is coming away from the sides of the pan.
* Remove from the saucepan and cool slightly, then knead briefly until smooth. Allow to cool completely before using. Store in an airtight container or plastic bag. It doesn't need to be stored in the refrigerator, but it will last a little longer in hot weather if you do.

Bubble Mix

1/4 cup dishwashing detergent
3/4 cup water
5 drops glycerine

* Measure the ingredients into a container with a lid and stir gently to combine. The older this mixture is, the longer the bubbles last when it is used, so it is a good idea to make it at least two weeks before you want to use it or gift it.
* Seal leftover mix tightly. You can make various different sized and shaped bubble wands using thin wire (such as florist wire) and a pair of pliers, and we find that using shallow flower pot saucers work well for containing the bubble mix for dipping when we are using it.

Salt Dough

* 2 parts plain flour
* 1 part salt
* water as required
* 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, and add the vegetable oil. Mix in a small amount of water, and keep adding water and mixing until the mixture is smooth and no longer crumbly. Use the dough as you would for playdough to shape into whatever the child desires. When they are finished, place into an oven at 170'C/ 340'F, and dry until the shapes are nice and hard.

Paint them with any water-based paint. Varnishing them with craft glue or modge podge when dried will help protect them if you intend to keep them for some time.

To make this up as a gift, combine the flour and salt in an airtight container such as a pretty jar. Include the instructions on a piece of card attached to the jar by a ribbon, or apply a pretty label.

Water Colour Paints

* A quantity of corn starch / cornflour (say, half a cup, depending on how much paint you need)
* An equal volume of cold water
* Food colouring for the required colour/s

Mix equal parts by volume, of the cornflour and water until the cornflour is completely suspended in the water. Slowly add the food colouring to the mixture drop by drop, while mixing until you have achieved the desired colour. Start painting!

This mixture is also great dried into a powdered form for later use or as gifts. Pour it out onto a shallow plastic tray and place it in a spot where it can dry slowly in the air. When it is completely dry, crush the paint to a fine powder and store in an airtight container until required. To use the paint, add water until you have the desired consistency.

The salt dough and water colour paint recipes came from the Grandpa Pencil website, which also has some great activities for kids during the holidays.

Have fun!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Getting out the cave...

Consumption Rebellion

I was reviewing some of my older posts in my personal blog tonight and came across this one that I thought I'd share.

I published this article quite early in my journey to live a greener life. It was at a time when I was questioning whether my little changes were really making any impact. At the time, I had posted my feelings of discouragement in a discussion forum I occasionally go to. A person wrote this to me in response. I do not know this person's real name but I did gain her permission to publish her reply.

To my regret, I have not "seen" that person again in that discussion forum or anywhere else on the Internet after she agreed to let me publish it. However, I am forever thankful to that person for giving me something that I can gain strength from when I start thinking of giving up...

The arguments for doing nothing will always be with us:

In politics ("All politicians lie."),
in economics ("There will always be poor people."),
in law ("Sure the judicial system is imperfect, just like everything else."),
in business ("The market forces will correct it."),
in society ("What are you, a Johnny Do-Gooder?"),
in the military ("War is Hell. That's what happens."),
in environmentalism ("The Earth is constantly changing."),
the list goes on and on.

We now have elected representatives instead of Kings.
We now have capitalism instead of slavery and feudalism.
We now have a jury of our peers with due process instead of an Inquisition.
We now have the SEC and the BBB instead of Robber Barons.
We now have charities and social services instead of debtor's prisons.
We now have battlefield Corpsmen instead of a reading of the Last Rights and a splash of Holy Water.
We now have anti-pollution regulations instead of the Dickensian London smog.

We got out of the caves because we refused to listen to these arguments.

There will come a time when Mankind looks back upon our time as if we had lived in caves. And they will have progressed to where they are because of a long line of people who refused to do nothing.

There is always a better way.

SFG's Fast and Loose I

Posted by: Paul Gardener
A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)

This post is a repost of something that I put up at the request of one of readers on my personal blog. I thought that, with us being in the middle of winter here in the Northern hemishpere, some of us may be planning our new gardens for next year and may appreciate the ideas, and in the Southern Hemisphere they're in the middle of Summer and may be able to put some things into practice. It has been slightly modified to relate to this blog, but generally remains as it was originally posted.

In the past, I've used the famous "square foot gardening" (SFG) method, at least it is certainly where I started. (This is not meant to supercede Mel Bartholomew's ideas but rather to put word to my own opinions with regard to them as I have used them.) I have found that there are many pieces of it that I just don't use on a regular basis and others that I have modified to suit my own needs and abilities. I've also found through my readings of other blogs out there that there seems to be a number of people getting stuck with some of the things Mr Bartholomew outlines in his method. It's not so much that the stuff he suggests isn't practical, but I guess for a lot of us it's just not economical or necessary, so I decided to share my view of the way I've come to regard SFG's.

In the beginning I was a fairly firm SFGer. I built my 6" deep boxes, and composed a batch of "Mel's Mix" (1/3 each: compost, vermiculite, peat moss) and laid out my grid. There was my first variance. While I did make a grid, I didn't use the thick 3/4 to 1" sticks that Mel suggested because I didn't have the extra income to buy wood for it. Instead I used a roll of white nylon mason line to lay a grid out. I did this by placing nails around the boxes and tapping them over to make "hooks" and them running the string around them until I had a grid. It worked well, took up less space, and I could see the grid very well. As far as the Mels Mix, I still use it. I don't now, nor did I then, sweat the details over how much vermiculite I add compared to my compost and peat, I just split it up evenly and called it good, By and large however I hold that it is a very effective mix over all. One thing I would like to change, and would if I were to do it again, is that I would not make my boxes out of 6" boards. First of all, a standard 2x6 is not truly 6" deep, it's more like 51/2". Plus, I would like to have a little deeper soil, as well as having a little bit of lip at the top so that every time I work the bed I don't lose part of it over the side.

In the SFG book, Mel is a great advocate for making due, and reusing scrap materials to build the boxes. I totally agree with this approach, and would in fact extend it to the entire system as well. Trellising for instance. In the SFG book, Mel makes mention of using metal electrical conduit for his trellis frames. Now while I agree that these would make very nice frames, and I did test out a few this year, I was able to use some reclaimed 2x4's ripped in two and built a frame out of those for my tomatoes. For the trellising material itself I again went to the white nylon string. For tomatoes I stuck a stake in the ground and ran a string up to the top of the frame, as the tomato grew, I moved the plant around the string. I still do this today, it is the best way I have ever seen to grow perfect tomatoes. For cucumbers I made myself a sort of spider web strung between two tomato frames made out of... you guessed it... white nylon string. (seeing a pattern here, go get some!) This worked awesome and was completely removable and very inexpensive. (I'll be following this post up with a second one next week that will have a bunch of photos of some of the things I'm talking about.) Remember, every time you buy an item for your garden that you could otherwise make yourself, you are adding to your over all cost of production, and allowing yourself to become dependant on the garden center rather than the supermarket.

I have more to say on this, so stay tuned, but for now... time for sleep.
Till next time.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Living small

Rhonda Jean
Down to Earth

It never occurred to me when I was a spender that I was actually giving away my independence. I thought the opposite. I believed I was the queen of my realm and the more I had and the more dollars I spent, the more power, strength and independence I had. When I stopped spending I realised how pathetically wrong that was.

What I was doing was working in a job I didn't like so I had enough money to pay for a lifestyle I didn't want to live. I was shopping for clothes and shoes to make me look like everyone else, I was buying things for my home to make me feel comfortable in a place I didn't take the time to feel comfortable in, and I was buying foods to comfort and nurture because I didn't feel at ease in my life and I didn't have the time or energy to cook the foods I liked. And the strangest thing is that when I was doing that, I didn't think about the sadness I was feeling, I didn't realise I was unsatisfied and I didn't see the need for change.

I only realised that need when I took myself out of the shopping frenzy and sat alone on my verandah and thought about what I was doing and how far from my ideal life I really was. When I stopped shopping, I saw it in a brighter light and when I saw its ugly side, I didn't want to go back there.

I realised that I could do all those things I used to spend my money on. I could make clothes, I could cook well, I could do my own housework, but when I started doing those things I found that I'd lost many of the skills I grew up with. I'd forgotten how to sew and knit because I paid someone else to make my clothes, I'd forgotten how to cook well because I'd been buying all sorts of foods that didn't require me to exercise my mind and spend my energy on making my truly favourite dishes. When it came to housework, all I knew was to get the Chux and Mr Sheen from the cupboard and wipe. I was really pathetic - a grown woman who didn't know how to look after myself or my family properly; I'd forgotten the skills that all my great grandmothers had passed on to me - I, my friends, was a modern woman - I was dependent on others to help me live.

You don't have to be a genius to shop, you need limited skills to be good at it - all you need is money, or credit, and time. All that time to spend walking through shopping malls searching for something made (usually) in a foreign land by people who are probably underpaid, producing millions of products exactly the same as the previous million, and the million that will follow.

On the other hand, not shopping requires a multifaceted strategy. You need to know how to create, cook, clean and sew, you need to make do with what you have, to reuse, recycle and repair, you need to barter, grow food, preserve, and it helps if you love doing it. You have to discover for yourself the true beauty of being able to look after yourself, your family and your home with a minimum of outside help. The beauty of it is there if you look.

I am much richer now than I've ever been in my life. I know how to live now. I have the skills to survive a crisis, I have the strength and knowledge to produce my own food and to store it. I can clothe myself and others. All these are real life-engaging and self-empowering skills. But the real skill here is to do it and love doing it. Relearning those lost skills, and then loving the doing of them, is an act of subversion because you're not doing what women and men in our times are supposed to be doing. Nurturing your family and yourself with cooking, gardening, housekeeping, dress making, knitting, making soap, baskets, shawls and jam, and all the other things you learn to do in your post-consumerist life, not only enriches your spirit but it makes you an independent force.

Ladies and gentlemen, may the force be with you.

Graphic from Allposters

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Organizing Recipes

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm

When you start cooking from scratch, you start collecting recipes. Disclaimer: my recipes are not organized, by any stretch of the imagination. There are recipes and cookbooks in every room of my house (if you count the Old Farmer's Almanac hanging in the bathroom). I can usually, but not always, find something I'm looking for, with a minimum of searching. Organizing them is one of those things on the "I really should do this someday" list in the back of my mind.

The computer has made finding some favorites a bit easier. Some are online - my browser favorites toolbar has a recipes folder full of folders full of bookmarked recipes. Others are saved on my hard drive - another folder full of folders. Some are scanned, some typed out, some even formatted to print on 3x5 cards (which my printer doesn't do very well). But the computer is in the spare room - to use any recipes from there means either printing them out or running back and forth, kitchen to computer. Maybe someday, I'll get a laptop and wireless router, and get everything scanned to a hard drive. Maybe. Someday.

I have a couple of inherited boxes of recipe cards - I add to them occasionally. I have a small shelf-ful of favored cookbooks in the kitchen, most sprouting a forest of post-its along the tops, the pages scribbled with changes and notes. On the kitchen table is a stack of magazines, also sporting a rainbow of post-its marking recipes I'd like to try. On the side of my refrigerator, magnet clips hold clippings cut from newspapers. And then there's the Grey Notebook.

A half-size looseleaf binder, it was a bridal shower present. The giver had labeled some of the dividers and written in a couple of her recipes, but most of the pages were blank. What a wonderful present! This book lives on a shelf above the kitchen counter, next to the microwave. The recipes in the Grey Book are my tried and tested, used all the time, favorites. The One-Hour French Bread, one of my first posts on this blog, is in the Grey Book. Most of the recipes I've put on my own blog are the ones from this book.

The Grey Book is my own personal reference book. One tab I've labeled "Feeding a Crowd". In that section are my traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas recipes. I know most of them without looking, but having them listed helps me make out my shopping list. The front page is a little timetable I've made, that helps me get everything on the table at the same time. The book usually stays open on my counter from Wednesday morning until Thanksgiving dinner is served on Thursday. Since everybody has their own family traditions and favorites, I didn't think something like this would be of use to anyone else, but my sister asked me to put it on line, so here it is. If you think you might find it useful, clicking on the picture should bring it up large enough to read.

Another section in the Grey Book is "Harvest Time". Not only are my canning recipes here (many are also on my blog), but also a page for each year, listing what I harvested, what didn't do very well, how much put away, and how much was still left from the year before. By looking at the progression on these pages, I know I need to do at least 2-3 canner loads of whole tomatoes each year, but make plum jelly only every fifth or sixth year. It's also helped me figure out how many jars, of what size, I need. In a small house, with limited storage space, having just enough is the ideal. The front page of this section is my quick canning reference, listing headspace, processing type, times and pressures adjusted for my altitude, and other little notes to myself. Maybe you will find it useful as well. Maybe you'll start your own reference book. Or maybe you'll share your own recipe organizing ideas here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The gift of food.

Posted by: Paul Gardener
A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)

And really good food too. Really good and really versatile food. Sourdough. Yummy, tasty, sticky and stinky (in a really good way of course...) sourdough starter. After Heather did me so proud with her post about what she wanted to give, I thought I just had to chime in too. The wife and I...well, OK, let's not exaggerate, the WIFE started a sourdough start for our family about a year and a half ago and it has very quickly become one of our absolute favorite things. She takes care of it, feeds and extends it and makes the very best fluffy, tangy and tasty pancakes and waffles with it as well as very good sourdough bread. It's not a wild sourdough, in case you're a connoisseur, but rather was started from a simple recipe that contained flour, water, and a small bit of yeast as a starter. (You can find a similar recipe here.) We did originally start with a wild yeast, but found that it only got "funky" not "beery" the way it should. After a couple of tries, we went this way and have loved it. Also, after a year and a half of regular feedings where the starter is exposed to the air in our home, I have no doubt it has been hybridized with our local wild strains. It has certainly matured in flavor over the months.

But this isn't really meant to be all about sourdough, as much as I'd love to pine on about it, there are much more qualified people to do that. (That's your cue to chime in sourdough experts...) But instead it's about one of the best things in the world that we can do with sourdough to spread the love.
Share the start! I mean how better could we let someone really get a good idea of how much we enjoy our own sourdough starter than to send them home with some of it. And that's exactly what we did this weekend when A~'s dad left our house after Thanksgiving. We extended and fed the start during the week he was here, then packed up and sent him home to West Virginia with some of his own.
If you haven't had a chance, or have been afraid to try, making sourdough of your own give this simple little starter a try. It's pretty simple, easy to use, and only tastes better with age. Then, when you feel pretty stable with it, pass it on. It takes a bit of work to learn to work with, but will provide you and your friends with the security that you will always be able to produce tasty leavened foods at home no matter what.
Good luck.