Monday, 31 May 2010

Weather not cooperating

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

While most of the US is basking in warm, dry gardening weather, the Pacific Northwest has been receiving storms of winter-time intensity. Snow in the mountains, and rain on the valley floor. Nice to ward off drought, but it makes it a little hard for farmers and gardeners to work their soil and plant crops. I normally am planting my warm season crops by now, but rain almost daily since the first of April has made that nigh on impossible. But living by the calendar has it's drawbacks when it comes to gardening, the weather is too cold to plant many crops anyway - so I can only hope that when it is dry enough to plant, it will be warm enough and the plants will take off.

We had a dry March which allowed me to plant some early cabbages, and various greens, which are really enjoying the cool, drizzly weather, and they are rewarding us with a basket of greens each day for salads and stirfrys.

We have managed to get a few rows of carrots, onions and kohlrabi in, but it is springs like these that make me glad for a bountiful harvest the year before, and the foresight to preserve it. We still have frozen & canned veggies from last year's garden abundance. We used our last storage onion this week, but we still have a few potatoes and winter squash. So we will hang on - warmer times are bound to come...

How is gardening going in your neck of the woods?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Consuming media part 2

by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hello everyone,

This post is a carry on from a post I made on this blog last year. In my journey, I have found that sustainability and living simply goes beyond our consumption and use of materials. I believe that consumption of media also needs to be done consciously and selectively. Media has such a huge influence in our lives that I think it needs to be part of the sustainability discussions.

Sometime ago, my daughter (then 5 years old), asked me if she was "hot". At the time, her question really surprised (and saddened) me. Apparently, a then six year old boy called my girl's other 5 year old friend "hot" at the playground. So she wanted to know if she was "hot" too.

We don't watch much commercial TV at home and I am always careful with the types of media we do consume. But at the time, I failed to realise that even if we did not come into direct contact with harmful advertising messages, we are still exposed to it through our contact with others, and through the billboards and ads in shopping centres and public areas. The language young children now use to describe themselves and each other can be highly sexualised.

At the moment, I truly believe that these children do not really understand what that word means. However, I'm concerned of the long term effects of introducing such concepts at such a young age. As their understanding grows, will it grow from that first perception that in order to be 'beautiful' that they would have to be 'hot'? Will they end up defining beauty in mostly sexual terms?

Last week, there has been some uproar in the US over 8 year old girls dressed and dancing provocatively as part of a dance competition. Here in Australia, my friends have told me of dance classes where it seems to be a requirement for girls as young as 6 years, to wear heavy make-up and sport fake tans.

Sometime ago, I watched an episode of "20 to 1". The theme was "Child Stars: Where are they now?". I couldn't help but notice how so many girls chose to take raunchy film roles or photos - essentially photos/roles that required them to take their clothes off - in order to show people that they've "grown up". Nikki Webster did it, Drew Barrymore did it, Britney Spears did it.... and the list goes on.

I find it incredibly sad that so many of these young women felt that in order to announce their transition into 'womanhood', they had to dress and act like tarts...

Is that what really defines a woman - that the day you leave your childhood behind is when you display yourself as nothing more than a sex object? It is depressing that people could demean childhood AND adulthood in this way.

I believe that one of the most important skills my children could develop are media and consumption literacy. I think its essential for their own sense of well being. But I have found it hard to find practical day to day tips and advice on how to go about doing this.

So here is what I do:
  • I have and will continue to ban most TV programs, certain toys and magazines at home.
  • I have and will continue to explain to my children why they are not allowed to watch those programs/have those toys/magazines whenever they ask.
  • I will continue to explore and deconstruct damaging messages *with* my kids. We do not live in a bubble and even with my precautions, my children are still being exposed to damaging messages. I want them to process those messages with my guidance.
I have to say, I *do* find it hard. Especially the third point. So many times the messages are complex, highly explicit but presented in such subtle ways. Trying to explain these messages in an age-appropriate way is difficult. So all I can do is keep trying and hope for the best.

I know this post has gone on for a bit, but before I sign off, I would like to share with you this slam poetry from Katie Makkai, called "Pretty". (Note that the "f word" is said once in this video). Please take the time to see this and to share:

Friday, 28 May 2010

Our House Cow Journey Continues

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

I'm cross-posting from Home Grown this week, because my cows are the most interesting thing happening on the farm right now!

I began milking Lucy when Wags was a few weeks old. Until then, he and Poppy the foster calf shared all the milk. As they began to eat a little grain and some hay and grass, I decided to separate Lucy and Honey from them during the day, giving her several hours to graze the grass in the orchard and house paddock, and then I brought her in to be fed, checked over and milked before releasing her back into the small paddock with the babies and Honey for the night. I did this around four times each week, taking around 3 to 4 litres each milking. The other days they all grazed together. This routine went well for a little while, and then Lucy was only giving 2 litres at each milking, and then just a litre for the final couple of milkings last week. And then I gave up. Why go to all the bother of mixing feed, setting up, milking, cleaning the dairy, the buckets and everything for a mere litre of milk? As I led Lucy back to the small paddock, her udder would swell and teats fill with the rest of the milk she had withheld from me, ready to feed her babies she'd been apart from all day.

Last week we let them all into a larger paddock to allow us to do some maintenance on their small paddock and the areas we graze them inside electric fence tape. I'm not milking Lucy for awhile. We've slashed their paddocks and we'll harvest some manure and hay from near their pens to use in some of the raised garden beds I've emptied out recently. Do I still have a House Cow? Or a dairy breed with her calves let loose in the paddock? I'm trying to convince them they're still our dairy herd by encouraging them back to the water troughs daily for their minerals, perhaps some hay or another treat, and some checking over and brushing. Poppy and Honey especially love to be brushed, I think because they've had less affection from Lucy, being foster calves. I use a horse brush on them and they mostly love careful strokes around their face and ears.

When it's time to wean the calves, I'll bring Lucy back to the small paddock. I'm not sure on the exact management of the herd from there, but I'll try to get her into once-a-day milking again. I don't think I'll bother with another foster calf for a little while.

We have just castrated Wags using the banding method, which seems to us to have been a humane way to carry out the process. His job now is to eat grass and grow big!

The next thing we need to think about is getting Lucy artificially inseminated (AIed), which is usually done three months after a dairy cow calves.

So much to consider... And to think that once I just thought that cows ate grass, drank water, made manure and existed with little human intervention!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

It's a State of Mind, A Way of Doing Things

Working with the idea posted here earlier about family work weekends, I wanted to give a glimpse of our set up. We have our share of friends and family who are also homesteading on acreages, and then we also have some who live in town and urban homestead. Due to limited space/light/laws we end up sharing our space with them, so they can expand on what they do there. In exchange they help us keep up with what we do. Recently we added a new goat, already in milk to our herd, a sweet Toggenberg named Ginger. We weren't really planning on doing any milking until next spring, but Ginger came from a family who needed to find a good home for many in their herd, and we were itching to be able to supply our own dairy products. This lead to a scurry of gathering parts and pieces we were going to need, including (but certainly not limited to!) a milking stand. The home we adopted Ginger from had a wooden milking stand, which they had advised against, as they were having issues with mildew. After searching numerous pages of terribly-expensive-on-a-homesteader's-budget stands made of wood, pvc or metal, I decided that we would chance the wood. The cost of the stands available through catalogs and such were in the area of $175-$200 plus shipping which was generally around $65. The cost of materials for our homemade one: $30. No comparison.
This stand was also built by two terribly talented ladies, myself and one of my closest friends and partner in crime, er, homesteading (she's my urban counterpart, so to speak). It went together easily; we used the directions for a stand from Fias Co. Farm, which is also where we get our animal health products like the herbal wormer we use. I love Molly's site-she is very thorough in her explanations of how and why she does what she does with her goats. The stand works wonderfully, and has already served another purpose as I sheared our Border Cheviot sheep, Chrysanthemum yesterday. It is lightweight and sealed with oil. I wipe down with the same soapy solution I clean the milking dishes with each milking, and dry it to avoid any growth issues.
All of this is not to push Fias Co. farm's site (though I do love them!) or to brag or just chat about how I spend my weeknights, but rather to talk about how many resources (including this blog :)  ) are available to the simply, frugally, green minded individual out there that makes it easier for them to live the way they do. The internet has made it so easy to find others who have been through the same trenches we have been or are in. It is easy to order or follow the insight of the first site hits google brings up, but I find that there is great value in taking time to look at all your options and seek what fits you best. I respect the opinion of the fine farm family we bought Ginger from, and I agree they have an issue with the stand they use. I also know our situation and what we can make work. I took time (though I was on a deadline) and figured out what would fit our budget and time. That wouldn't have worked, though, without the help of our friends, either. I am not a craftsman when it comes to wood working, but by combining talents (every Thursday night, at that) we are able to achieve more, and work towards our goals for more self-sufficiency and frugality. And it was fun. I think too often we see work rather than opportunities for gathering. I actually enjoy working-I know it sounds crazy to some, but the feeling of accomplishing something is far more gratifying than the click of a button in ordering it from some distant company. All in the homesteader's day to day, and I wouldn't change any of it.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Why do Women get it, but Men don't?

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

Being the only remaining male left contributing to this wonderful blog, it got me thinking about the gender mix and all things Simple, Green and Frugal.  The title of the post is a generalisation, and I fully understand that there are also women who don't understand the benefits of simple living, and obversely there are men, such as myself who do understand.  I have chosen the title as an exaggeration to make a statement.  This post is not meant to be sexist or derogatory towards either gender, it is just a simple observation that I have made since I have been on my journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle.  I just really want to know what you think of what I pose to you all now.

The simple fact of the matter is, in my humble experience, is that more women understand climate change, and the urgency to act, than do many men that I talk to.  They understand that our lifestyles will probably need to change and it is the simple ways that will help us on the path to averting a total calamity.

However, I do not have an answer as to why this is so?  I get so many comments on my personal blog from ladies from all across the globe who share their experiences willingly, I find that rarely do any men comment.  Is it that women are more attracted to blogs of this type, and that men don't give a hoot about the big issues and are in denial? Or is it as simple as women take the time to comment, and men agree, but don't take the time to share their feelings?  However, if that is the case, what am I doing here sharing all of my experiences and stories with you? 

I simply do not have an answer, but I am hoping some of you do.  Please put me out of my misery and share your theories. 


A confused Gavin.

P.S. No slanderous comments please.  I am after clean and healthy commentary.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: staking tomatoes

by Francesca

gardening tools 2
~ photos from last year ~

My tomatoes are finally going in this week. Finally, because I got the seedlings about three weeks ago, but spring temperatures this year forced us to wait, and tomatoes love warm weather. In fact, they only thrive in warm weather (temperatures not below 15-18C), and the year I planted two batches of plants 5 weeks apart, hoping for a second tomato harvest, I found that it's far better to plant a little late than a little early: I harvested my second batch of tomatoes well before the first, which never really recovered from a long cool spell in the spring, and were stunted.

tomato flower

Do you have a favorite vegetable to grow? Tomatoes are definitely mine! I love everything about growing tomatoes: the long and abundant producing season, the visual impact of the dark green and lush looking plants with their little sun-gold flowers and their shiny red fruits, and especially their strong tomatoey smell on my hands, after I've finished cropping the suckers and tying the plants to their supports. Tomato plants are in all senses exuberant plants!

grape tomatoes

This year I'm only growing two varieties, partly for lack of space, but also because I'm concentrating on the the two varieties that we enjoy most: date and beefsteak tomatoes. I'd never heard of date tomatoes until last year, when I unknowingly planted them instead of the cherry tomatoes I thought I'd bought. I was very pleased with their intense flavor and firm texture, and my kids love them, even snacking on them straight from the vine. Beefsteak and date tomatoes are indeterminate, vining varieties - rather than determinate, bushy tomatoes - and their vines need support and pruning as they grow.

staking tomatoes

We use the staking technique that all the local farmers use, which is very simple and makes use of the canes that grow wild around here (or that can be bought very inexpensively) to build effective A-frame supports. You dig a trench about 50cm wide and 15cm deep, and plant tomato seedlings in pairs on opposite walls of the trench. Next, stick a cane into the soil beside to each tomato plant, and tie the corresponding pairs of canes together near their tops. For added stability in the wind, link the pairs of canes together by running a wire along their joined tops (as in photo) or, even better, lay another cane horizontally across the joined tops and tie in place.

Aside from being very inexpensive, this technique combines the trench method – tomatoes need a lot of water – with a simple and stable trellis system that leaves the plants easily accessible for plant care and harvesting.

What growing techniques do you use for your tomatoes?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Next Chapter

 by: Danelle

For two years we toured farms, read about farms, produce, and livestock. We stepped up the study when we finally put our home on the market in 2008 and suddenly, graciously, we received invitations to several farms.

The first one, the home and garden of fellow unschooler Meg and her family. 3 acres right outside of town, nestled between neighbors, but far enough out to feel like a secret world. We tagged and let loose monarchs, roasted marshmallows, and picked white peaches by moonrise light. It was magical. I loved talking breastfeeding, unschooling, and history with Meg and her family. Her kiddos are older than Lil'Bug but they were all fast friends. What I came away with is that I aspire to be Meg. Her garden was overflowing and messy, her kids happy and curious, and she could count the stars if she wished.

The next farm we visited was 10 acres to the West of town. Close to a major road, lots of wide open space, a tree stand at the back. Lots of lawn, lots of wind. Their garden was overflowing as well. We shared a meal and talked gardening. Good time. What I came away with there was that the home is just as important and how your family lives inside and out must be comfortable and work for us. They built their own home and it is beautiful. We also got a feel for what our 10 acre minimum actually played out. We decided on the drive home that to make the farm do what we want, we'd need more than 10 and we wanted a water feature to draw wildlife, more trees for shade.

Then we visited Sugar Creek Family farm. Another 10 acre farm, but this one is/was a working CSA. We toured her garden, and chicken set up. Ate amazing food and let Lil'Bug get messy. We went back later to learn how to butcher and pluck chickens. We added to our list of requirements good fencing and more distance from neighbors.

The next farm we visited was a 40 acre horse farm. They had a neglected apple tree to harvest, but also a pond, pasture, timber and nice out buildings. That farm was an hour and 45 minutes away from Des Moines. We adjusted how far we were willing to drive from home to work. Not quite that far. ;) We had a nice visit and tour, met some of the neighbors and our host's family. Picked so many apples!

We attended the Farm Crawl, a series of farm open houses in two neighboring counties. An unschooler from our local yahoo list posted the event and we toured and toured! This year I paid intense attention to the Blue Gate CSA because they farm like we intend to, on a property most like what we wanted, with many of the elements (like bees) that we have our hearts set on, AND the farm we want is nearby in the same county. Then we we visited with Jill and Sean again, without the busy chaos of a crowd! It was a delightful time. Lil'Bug harassed their cats a bit though. We are working on that with her, she just gets so excited about animals. The Blue Gate folks really bolstered our intentions that farming the way we wanted to is possible and economical on a small scale. 

I'd like to add, Blue Gate's eggs.....we scrambled them up for breakfast and Dearest and Lil'Bugthought I had added cheddar cheese to them. I did no such thing. The yokes were orange and the flavour.... cheesy! Wow.

The plus one? Ours. We were one step closer to realizing our dream.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Fresh Spinach Time Again

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm

Oh, dear - time for me to post again. It really snuck up on me this time, and I'm at a loss about what to write about. As one of the few charter members of this Co-op still contributing (with more than 40 posts, last count), I do want to provide timely information without repeating myself. I hope y'all don't mind if I've adapted something from a couple of years ago on my own blog. It is spinach time around here once again, after all:

I love spinach salad (especially with this dressing) but our growing season for spinach can be problematic. High-desert spring weather can go from freezing cold to wilting heat in the space of a day (and back again - snow in June isn't completely unheard of). It's a delicate balancing act to get spring-seeded spinach big enough to pick before it bolts and starts sending up a seed stalk.

So instead, I sow my little spinach patch in the late fall when I plant my garlic and shallots. I like the open-pollinated (meaning not hybrid, so I can save the seeds) Bloomsdale Long-Standing, both for its ability to withstand both heat and cold, and for the meaty, smooth, easy-to-clean leaves. The seeds then lie dormant until late February, when the melting snows and lengthening days make the perfect conditions for germination. I've been eating spinach salads for weeks now. In the photo, one plant that was too close to the edge of the protecting wire cage is a bit bird-pecked, but the rest are still doing great. On down the soaker hose behind are garlic and then shallots. Following the hose around to the left are some of the spring-seeded peas, with onion plants further back.

Every week, I cut a plant or two down to a couple of inches, and then leave it to regrow for a couple of weeks. This method provides me with a continuous supply of fresh spinach salads for a couple of months, at least. Washed in a sink full of cool water, picked through and stems removed, the leaves are then put into a wire basket and taken out onto the deck, where they're swung vigorously up and around overhead (the whole-body workout version of a salad spinner). The swung-dry leaves then keep nicely for days, wrapped in a clean cotton dish towel and then tied up in a plastic grocery bag. This past week we've had cold and rainy weather, so the spinach has just gone crazy. I'm picking spinach leaves the size of rhubarb! Not only do I have enough for salads daily (one leaf can make a salad), but this year, even enough to freeze. I dunk the leaves into boiling water for just a minute to blanch them, then cool in a sinkful of cold water and drain. Most of my cooked spinach recipes call for half a 10-oz package of frozen spinach, so I pack a 1/2 cup measure heaping full, make that into a little spinach patty, and put them on a cookie sheet. Frozen on the sheet, each disk is then wrapped in plastic wrap and all stored in a gallon freezer bag. This way, I can easily pull out just enough for a recipe for the two of us all next winter.

So, tell me, dear readers: why do you read this blog regularly? Are there topics you'd like to hear more about? Or is it just the variety that keeps you coming back?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Work Weekends

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

My mother and her four siblings have regular get-togethers that really work for them.  Each of the five siblings, who are spread over four states in the northeastern part of the US, hosts all the others and their spouses once per year for what they call a work weekend.  This tradition was instituted about twelve years ago, and began as a "sisters' cleaning weekend."  That was just my mom and her sisters, pitching in together to tackle some of the biggest and most tedious house cleaning chores.  But then one of my uncles caught wind of this and wanted to know why he hadn't been included.  Thus the work weekends were launched.

The way it works is that all the siblings and spouses show up at one sibling's home on Friday night.  The host sibling puts everyone up, feeds them for the weekend, and creates a list of projects to be accomplished.  It's very much to the host's benefit to be organized in terms of having on hand whatever tools or materials will be needed for the work weekend, otherwise a run to the hardware store might interrupt work.  Everyone pitches in for a full day on Saturday, and a half day on Sunday, so that everyone can get home at a reasonable hour.  (Some of them have very long drives.)

The thing that's so neat about this family tradition is that it has really brought them all together, five times per year, and the visits are now enjoyable for everyone.  Previous family get-togethers had tended to be contentious if not acrimonious.  Having productive work to do together has really changed the family dynamic in profound ways.  My mother's family are all hard workers too.  So although it is a lot of work for the hosting sibling in terms of organization and accommodation, an amazing amount can be accomplished in a very short time.

The projects that my parents, aunts and uncles have worked on over the years are remarkably diverse: bathroom renovation, staining a deck, window cleaning, kitchen cabinet cleaning, breaking turf for a new garden, planting fruit trees, stripping and painting furniture, building raised beds in a garden, installing a fence, repointing a brick chimney, building a deck or shed, clearing brush, chopping firewood - you name it, they've done it.  After a hard day's work, there's always dinner and dessert, which are usually excellent because most of my mom's family are very good cooks.  Nickel-dime-quarter poker always follows dinner, and there's usually six or seven of us around the table.  Yes, I turn up for the poker whenever I can, even if I miss the work!

Because you see, although my cousins and I turn up at some weekends and pitch in, the generational divide has been made very clear to us. We're on our own for work weekends.  Our parents have their yearly schedule, and they're not going to commit to travel and work for my generation.  Which is fair enough.

Though I've tried a few times to interest my cousins in organizing a work weekend exchange, it just doesn't seem to be the right time.  Most of my cousins now have small children, and traveling the distances that separate us would be burdensome for them.  It's not the same time of life that our parents started their work weekends; they waited until their kids were out of the house.  So instead, I've arranged a work weekend exchange this year with three local friends who are interested.  We've modified my family's arrangement somewhat, because we're all local.  No need to put anyone up for the night, and we've agreed that the host is only responsible for lunch, not breakfast or dinner.  We're also only working for one full day out of each weekend.  While the plan is to work on Saturdays, we decided that everyone would reserve the entire weekend, just in case of rain.  The host can decide to take the rain date, and have everyone work on Sunday, or just organize a list of things that can be done indoors if it rains all weekend.

So far we've had one of the four work weekends, and it mostly involved window cleaning.  My turn is this weekend though.  On my agenda is adding a lot of compost to the garden beds, some weeding, and some lasagna mulching.  The plan for lunch is to set out roast chicken, beans, brown rice, avocados, shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, and warm tortillas so that everyone can roll their own burritos.  A cheap, healthy meal that should keep my workers fueled.  And yes, I know how much it pays to treat your work weekend participants right, so chocolate chip cookies will be on offer too.  There will be beer for the end of the day as well. 

I wanted to mention this tradition that I'm attempting to borrow from my own family, because I know what it's like to have great ambitions for projects and yet feel like it's impossible to find the time to get it all done.  Work weekends require a commitment of organization, as well as the obligation to work as hard for others as we do for ourselves.  But I've seen first hand how much of a difference working together can make - not only how much gets accomplished in very little time, but also how working together knits relationships more densely together as well.  The old saying is that many hands make light work.  I've also seen that many hands working together over years and years have made my family much stronger, closer, more trusting, and more available for each other in bad times.  We still crack jokes at each other's expense.  There's still drama and hurt feelings from time to time.  But we know deep down - for certain - that we're there for each other as an extended family.  And I'm not sure that would be true if not for the work weekends.

So I'm hopeful, going into my own first time hosting a work weekend.  The participants in this case are friends and not family, not even close friends yet if I'm honest.  I'd certainly love it if I could someday have a work weekend arrangement with my cousins.  But I'd rather get started with friends who may someday become as close as family than wait for my cousins' kids to all grow up.  I might end up with chosen family out of the shared work.

Does your family have any similar tradition?  Could you commit to working hard several weekends out of the year if it meant a willing crew of workers were available to you once per year?  What project would you most like to tackle on a work weekend?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Adding Diversity to the Garden

by Chiot's Run

I'm always trying find ways to increase the biodiversity in our gardens and to broaden my knowledge of the benefits of of biodiversity, even in the small scale garden. Every year we add a few more native/local plants, especially ones that are beneficial for insects (like milkweed, queen anne's lace & goldenrod). We also garden without the use of any kind of sprays or dusts, even the organic ones, which still be hard on or kill beneficial insects. Our methods of pest control are limited to luring beneficial insects/birds/animals to our property and companion planting. If our cabbages get decimated by cabbage loopers we try companion planting or we try to lure beneficial birds to the garden. One of the reasons I don't spray or do anything to limit the insect population of any kind is because I believe the "bad" insects are around for a reason. If we didn't have them, we wouldn't have the good ones either, or the birds/animals that rely on them for food.

What got me thinking about this was something I read a long time ago about some trees in one state. This particular type of tree was plagued by web worms (which we have a lot of around here). The state started a spraying program to control the worms, but then they noticed the trees started dying off. After further study they found out that the worms defoliated the trees right at the time the dry season started. The defoliation allowed the trees to lose less water and thus survive the dry season. When they killed off the worms, they inadvertently weakened or killed the trees. We have such a limited view of the natural world, what we often see as a "pest" if often doing a specific job, if we interrupt that natural cycle we often do more damage.

Adhering to these self-imposed rules hasn't always been easy. We've had times when we've been overrun with earwigs, HUGE wolf spiders, and slugs and I've lost crops to insect damage. But we have noticed that each and every year we have a greater variety of insects, birds and other creatures in our gardens. Along with all these new species comes a healthier ecosystem and fewer problems with overpopulation of one species. I've noticed that we don't get overrun any more. When the cabbage worms start getting out of hand, the wrens eggs hatch and mama goes to work collecting all those big juicy fat green worms to feed their young. At that moment I'm thankful that I didn't dust the cabbage or those little wren babies might not have enough to eat. The more I pay attention to these natural cycles the more thankful I am that I read that article so long ago. I love spotting a wasp patrolling a broccoli plant in search of a caterpillar or birds flitting around the tomatoes looking for giant hornworms.

My newest attempt to add biodiversity to my gardens is in the way of a small pond. We've been wanting to add some water for the insects, frogs, toads, birds and other wildlife. I have small saucers of water I around the garden (change water frequently to avoid breeding mosquitoes), but I have been wanting to add something larger. My parents gave us their old pond when they upgraded to a larger one. We installed it a couple weeks ago and 2 days later we found a few toads in it already. We bought some fish to help with mosquito control and it looks like we're on the way to even great diversity on our small 1/4 acre lot. I've noticed bees and wasps drinking from the pond and the birds love it as well. I'll keep thinking of new ways to make my little slice of the world a refuge for the insects and animals of all shapes.

Any great tips and ideas on increasing the biodiversity in the garden? Have you noticed a greater abundance and variety of insects, birds, and other wildlife in your gardens?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal and you can follow me on Twitter.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

What's The One Thing You Do?

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

This month I'm in the throws of month two of a new demanding job, a broken computer battery (for which I can't find a replacement), a broken phone and two very very ill (potentially terminal) family members. Life is certainly not simple as of late, yet I know making teeny tiny choices to continue living a simple life, make such a huge difference. It is times like these, where you have to really focus on what you can do and accept that in this season you may not be able to achieve it all. Currently I can not blog, I can not make three healthy simple meals a day, I'm not able to use my washable toilet paper system or find the time to make my own shampoo! I can: spend time caring for sick family members each week, meet elaborate targets at work, volunteer, recycle, compost and buy fairtrade and organic, if not all local.

So today I come to you, knowledgeable readers of this blog and ask you:
What are the one or two choices you make to help you lead a green, simple and frugal lifestyle? What choices can you commit to even through the tough times?

For me the two choices I'm trying to hold onto are exercising (outdoors) every day and making one balanced & simple meal each day!

I can't wait to read your responses, I am sure they will help anyone else who feels a tad overwhelmed like I do!

Friday, 14 May 2010


Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

I've mentioned LETS before, when describing some of the ways our family are attempting to connect with our community. Today I thought I'd share some more information, as I'm so excited about the growth and activity within our local system, which I've been co-ordinator of for two years this year.

A Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) is a non-profit community organisation. It lets ordinary people share skills, talents and resources using alternative currency.

Our LETS group

LETS in Australia

LETS Australia on Facebook

LETS Worldwide

Community Exchange

For our family, LETS is part of our everyday economy, as well as a means to enjoy little extras that we normally can't afford. Some of the things we've received recently include: two new ukeleles for my children, soap, furniture, horse riding, yoga classes, fishing gear, crockery, delivery of a washing machine, books, fresh produce, take-away food, phone credit, a crocheted rug, cleaning products, cheese, CDs, Italian lessons for my teenagers and stock for Spiral Garden (my business). And some of the things we've offered include: macadamias, plants, vegetables, eggs, Spiral Garden products, books and magazines, tutoring, garden labour, outgrown toys, cow manure and preserves.

LETS increases our family income by the equivalent of over $2000 per year, and that amount grows as our local system does. Could you use some extra income, without the commitment of more working hours? Perhaps LETS can work for you, too.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Mason Jar Kids' Cups

By Abby of Love Made the Radish Grow

Recently I was posed with a problem-my husband was fed up with the kids spilling drinks on the floor, but I had no good solution for them to be able to drink things like milk and juice in covered cups. Most mainstream sippy cups are all plastic, something we try not to buy if we can help it. Stainless water bottles are great for water and tea, but are terribly difficult to wash out if something like milk gets left in them. Sometimes, as we recently found, they can even form explosives as the milk ferments. I have rotten milk on the ceiling of my office from a stainless sippy-style cup that formed a vacuum and blew up when my son tried to open it. Gross.
Our other dilemma is storage space. Yes, I have a very large kitchen-I designed it that way intentionally, but that doesn't mean I want to store 50 different styles of glasses for every situation. We also tend to use the canning jars that get opened throughout the season as drinking glasses, making them dual purpose and meaning I need less storage space as they can do double duty.
One last issue that came to light only after I found my solution was that I could find a good use for leftover canning lids, as well. One use is the recommended lifespan, and though I keep them around so I can use them on jars I stick in the fridge for leftovers, or stock in the freezer or dry goods in the cupboard, there are always far more lids than jars. This solution found yet another use for the buggers.

The solution was so, so simple, so much so I wondered why I hadn't done it earlier. I used a punch I found in my husband's garage (now adopted so I make new lids whenever I need to) and my hammer and simply put holes in the lids. You don't need much force-don't swing too hard or you'll end up with broken glass. We keep straws when we might eat out or in various odd things we stumble across and the kids have covered cups that satisfy everyone in the house!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Making Seed Raising Mix

For a couple of years now, I have made my own seed raising mix.  I was sick of buying bags of mix from the nursery, and usually the store bought stuff was not as successful as I would have liked.

So, I came up with my own seed raising mixture.  You can usually make your own, as long as it holds moisture and is not very rich in nutrients.  Here is my very basic recipe.

You need a garden sieve, a couple of 10 litre (2 gallon) buckets, and a big tub to mix it all up in.

I used the following ingredients.
  • 2 buckets of sieved compost (which once sieved equated to about 1 bucket in the tub)
  • 1 bucket of fine coconut coir
  • quarter of a bucket of sheep manure, crushed finely (in sack with lump of wood) and sieved
  • 5 big double handfuls of worm castings.
This is a big handful of the end result in my big tub.  The mixture was filled the top when I started!

All ingredients mixed well with gloved hands for about a good 5 minutes for even distribution. Then I wet it down with only a little water mixed with seaweed solution so that it was moist but not damp. If I squeezed it, no water would come out. I did a pH test with a tool I bought long ago and forgot I had, and it was about 7 which is neutral, so there was no need to add anything else to balance it.

Last year I used horse manure and a lot of grass sprouted, which confused me for a while as to what was the deliberately planted seed and what was the weed!  This year I did not have the same problem with the Sheep manure.  Not many weed seeds at all and only a few extra tomato seedlings sprouting from the compost!

Using this recipe, I had quite a bit of germination success.  I also found that when planting tiny seeds all I needed to do was put the seeds on the surface and then use a kitchen sieve to just cover the seeds with mixture.  Germination was a lot better than poking the seeds into the mixture with my fingers as I had done in previous years.

So, happy Spring planting to all in the Northern Hemisphere, and if it is not too cold, happy Autumn planting in the Southern Hemisphere.  Happy planting where ever you may be. I just love the feeling of dirt between my fingers, what ever season it may be!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: taking it in

by Francesca


Before I started my first vegetable garden eleven years ago, I'd been an indoor gardener. In the city apartments where I lived, I always surrounded myself with green plants and flowers, and always had pots of herbs my kitchen (which stubbornly refused to thrive).


a discarded deck chair frame, and ...

Now I'm an outdoor gardener, and grow mainly vegetables, but also some flowers and many herbs. My garden is a space I love. It's more than a place for growing food, or connecting to the earth, or homesteading. Of course, it is very satisfying to eat what I've grown, and it's rewarding to pass by the produce section in a store and notice for the first time how wilted and identical all those vegetables look.


... some IKEA fabric ...

But my love of gardening is also about enjoying this space that nature and I create together. Nature does most of the work, of course, but I've lent a hand in deciding which plants will thrive here and where they'll grow. As I garden, I feel like an apprentice learning from a master artist.

chair 3

.. and voilà: one of my essential gardening tools in one of my favorite spots in the garden!

Every year when I lay out my vegetable garden, I always leave a grassy area on one end, a space not just to dig, rake and plant, but also to enjoy all the swift and secret things that are happening in the earth all around me. My garden isn't just where I make food for my family. It's a place where I love to sit and just be.

Do you have a space in your garden where you can just sit back and take it all in?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Beginning of Our Search

by Danelle

I am short on time this week, but since so many people keep asking/telling me about their own farm dream, I thought I would share how we found ours. It is a long story though, so here is part one!

"Ok, the farm thing. I grew up on a farm/ranch sort of, in rural Colorado, off and on through my childhood. My dream then was to live in a concrete flat with metal furniture and lots of abstract paintings and weird music. Funny now. For a wedding present a neighbor taught us how to garden our 25 X 17 ft yard. We quickly out grew that and bought a bigger fixer upper house, with a bigger fixer upper yard, then bought an adjacent lot for more garden space.

There are problems with gardening/farming in the city. Livestock restrictions for one, though some places allow 10 or less chickens, if housed and penned. Lead soil contamination is also an issue. Exhaust, dust, noise, etc....

We built raised beds and planted fruit trees. We have yet to get any fruit because of the hooligan children who live next door; they keep vandalizing the branches before blossoms set. We have a 6 ft fence to no avail.

We garden the veggies and trees organic. This means picking off pests by hand (or shop vac) and composting.

We've been visiting farms and talking the business side of things with the farmers.

So we started looking at farm properties both near and far just to get a good idea of what we will need. Here is what I have learned so far:

1) Check for urban growth and development encroaching. 10 acres is a minimum for us, but it has to be away, away from housing (I don't mean other farm houses.)
2) Ag near by: no hog confinement lots please. Corn fields are a potential hazard too because of "drift" or over spray of pesticides. A slightly windy day could take out all of your vegetables. Pasture is good, but roaming livestock will require good fences. Wooded can also mean shelter for predators.
3) Out buildings. What we decided we need is a good multipurpose barn. One property we looked at had a 3 level: hay loft, main floor for pig, cow, horse, poultry, and a walkout basement level with more horse/cow stalls and a sheep/goat pen. Perfect. They had a milk house that had been converted to a smoke house. Then a machine shed/4 car garage. the multipurpose barn is something we are now looking for. We saw another property with twice the acreage but a separate building for each and it seemed sooooo much smaller. We also want a pond.
4) Viable well water. Past wells surveyed. Old farmsteads just covered the hole when a well dried up. In Iowa we have aerial maps for the past 80 years to tell us where these are and back fill them. Very dangerous. Actually "rural" water is better in Iowa because of the way conventional farmers contaminate the watershed with chemicals.
5) The house itself. Electrical wiring, heat source, etc.....Farmers like to do their own repairs. Sometimes good, sometimes not. A modern update can be more detrimental than one done in the 1950's. Good, fast, or cheap: pick two. Can you guess which ones our "peers" like to choose?
6) Flood plains. Check.
7) Generator and food stock. Winter storms can really bury you in.
8) Internet access. Some places in rural Iowa are actually wire-less as in there is no way to get a wireless signal or even dial up. Satellite connection only. Can be very expensive.
9) Nearest hospital? Get trained as an EMT first responder and volunteer with the fire department. This alone may save your life or someone you love's. In rural Colorado, the nearest neighbor was 20 miles and the nearest hospital was 120 miles. My aunt was the paramedic and they owned their own firetrucks. I can remember more than one occasion where someone knocked on the door and said their been a car accident. Sometimes, they were a bloody passenger/survivor who walked 5 miles to her house on the hill. Sometimes it was too late. I also remember when my baby sister ate a bottle of heart medicine, there was no trip to the ER. We had to work fast. Cells phones (where there is a signal) and helicopters have made this less of an issue, but not much less. Ah, and fires? If your house goes up, it's likely a loss since you'd hope someone is close enough to see the smoke, call it in, and then wait for the volunteer fire department to gather.
10) Gas prices are only going up up up. Cost of commute and activities with friends will too and might be impossible in adverse weather. Consider changing vehicles (though what we drive will work rural too...)
11) An added concern in Ohio (where we thought we might move to) are the natural gas well pumps on almost every rural farm we looked at. Bonus is that some of these homes get free gas from the gas companies as a kick back for the pump and royalties, downside is how dangerous the pumps can be.
12) Check for meth labs. Check in the woods, in the outbuildings, in the basement/crawlspace, in the bathtubs. Those chemicals are very very toxic.

We've been practicing for years now. We are so ready. We will not be doing it as a business though. We will be "homesteading" and producing only what we will need and maybe selling meat to friends or setting up a booth up at a farmers market on a whim. We will start with chickens and a pig, then add a cow, and go from there."

So that was the story three years ago. Before baby # 2 was born, before I taught online classes, and before we even had an idea of how close our dream actually was! 

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Potting Up & Hardening Off

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
My last post here dealt with starting my own tender vegetable plants inside, from seeds, to set out in the garden when the weather warms up. Those young plants now need another step or two before they're ready to go out in the garden.

The peppers and eggplants are doing fine in their little six-pack cells. If I'd started them in flats, or the tiny little starter sets they sell pre-packaged, they'd need to be moved to separate pots. The reused six-packs are big enough for them. They can stay where they are until the end of May, when it should finally be safe to put them out in the garden. But the tomato and okra plants benefit from potting up - transplanting to a bigger container.

There's a special technique to use with tomato plants, even those you bring home from the local nursery. If you look closely at the lowest part of a tomato plant stem, you might notice little whitish knobs or bumps. If buried in the soil, those knobs will grow into roots - in fact, any part of a tomato stem will sprout roots instead of leaves if buried. More roots on a young plant will make it grow stronger and faster once set out in the garden, meaning an earlier start to eating those fresh tomatoes. Plus, a stronger root system will deliver more water to the developing fruits, making the plants more drought-resistant and lessening the chance of problems caused by uneven uptake of water.

The night before I want to pot up my tomatoes, I make sure they get a good soaking. My potting table is outside. I want to make sure the soil is wet enough to hold together around the roots - exposure to the wind and the sun will be stressful enough on these tender plants. I get everything ready to go before bringing them out - new deeper containers, labeled and ready to go, and wet down the potting soil I'll be using.

The plants are quickly popped out of their cells, and dropped into the new containers. Any leaves now below the top of the container are pinched or twisted off (you don't want to pull them off and risk tearing a strip all the way down the stem). The root ball is lightly packed down into the very bottom, and then more potting soil added above, surrounding the stem, filling the container to the top.

This deeper burying only works on tomatoes - the okra (and peppers, etc. if necessary), when put into bigger containers, are replanted so that the soil level on those stays at the same spot on the stem. The extra soil goes into the bottom of the new container, the roots will then grow down deeper. When it's time to set these plants out in the garden, use the same techniques. Everything gets set in at the same level they are now, except for the tomatoes. For them, I dig the planting hole even deeper and set them way deep into the dirt, so that only the top few leaves are above ground. If the plant has gotten really leggy, I might dig a trench and lay the plant out sideways, curving the very top up and burying the rest. My plants settle in quickly, thriving even in my hot, dry high-desert climate.

There's still one more step plants started inside need before putting out into their permanent places. They need to be hardened off. This means gradually getting them used to the wind and stronger sunlight out in the open, without causing undue stress. The tomatoes I brought back inside under the lights right away. They'll need at least another week or two inside to recover from today, before I start hardening them off.

But the plants that can take our cooler Spring weather - cabbages, kales, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, and calendula - have been spending their days out on the deck. They're now properly hardened off and ready to go out into the garden. To harden off an indoor-started plant, taking a couple of weeks and doing it gradually is key. Start them out in a shady area, protected from the wind, for just a couple of hours, the first couple of days. Keep them well watered too - wind and sunlight are drying, and you don't want to let the plants wilt. Gradually increase the amount of time spent outside, and increase the amount of time they are in full sunlight. Towards the end of the hardening off period, start easing up on the watering too. By the time you set them out in the garden, there should be very little transplant shock. Even store-bought plants will benefit from some hardening off treatment - they're often so over-watered in the store, to keep them looking pretty, that the shock of transplanting to regular soil, out in the wind, can set your harvest back weeks. And we all want to get started on those fresh-picked veggies as soon as we can, don't we?

Friday, 7 May 2010

Sustainable Luxuries

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

Originally uploaded by FoundryParkInn

I've been thinking lately about luxury, indicators of wealth in our society, and other ways we spend money purely to gratify ourselves.  Of course, it's important to remember that even the very poor in the United States are wealthy by global measures.  But modern media and the advertising field have combined to portray an absurdly high standard of living that we're all meant to aspire to.  The fallacy of this consumerist lifestyle is already transparent to many of those who read here.  This modern conception of "wealth" does little to bring happiness to those who pursue it, nor is it ethically sound.  We'll leave aside the stark reality that the majority of the US population, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is priced out of acquiring the material trappings of this illusory lifestyle.

Still, I think humans are hardwired to seek pleasure, comfort, and yes, even luxury items as markers of social status or just sensory gratification.  We like beautiful things, though our definitions of beauty proverbially vary.  Although advertisements manipulate our desires and convince us that material things will make us better, happier people, marketers didn't create those desires and impulses in the first place.  Not everyone wants a diamond necklace, or live-in servants.  But I suspect each of us has a weak spot for something.

This line of thought leads me to question what forms of luxury might be possible in a sustainable, low-energy future.  Being a foodie and a gardener, good food is the first and most obvious example that comes to my mind.  Good food is really, really important to me, and I live in an area blessed with good soil, a moderate climate, and plenty of water for growing my own food.  So I've been doing that.  But here's where the concept of "luxury" runs bang up against human nature.  We've put in the effort to produce and find excellent sources of high quality local foods.  We changed our habits of cooking and eating to use these foods.  And now, though we savor our meals and appreciate what we have, it's become almost a self-discipline to remain mindful of just how good our food is.  The vexing truth is, we now take it somewhat for granted that we have our own eggs and vegetables, and grass-fed meat and dairy.  Although we intellectually know this quality of food to be extraordinary, we often have to remind ourselves how well we eat.  It's no longer really a luxury in our minds, but an ordinary part of daily life.  The fact that we put in so much work to produce this food also makes it a hard to think of this good food as a marker of "wealth."

So what do I consider a luxury in my life?  Massage. If I could justify the expense, I'd have a massage every single day.  For me there's just nothing like having tired, sore, or tight muscles attended to by a talented masseuse or masseur.  Physical touch is a primal pleasure.  The chance to completely relax and take time out for myself feels positively decadent.  And I always sleep really well after a good massage.  If I have a one-hour massage more than once a month, I really feel like I'm indulging myself.  The nicest thing is, massage fits within my rubric of sustainable values.  When I pay a masseuse, I'm spending money within my community. Other than the fuel I use to travel to her place of business, there's not much consumption, nothing to throw away.  She works in a dimmed room, and most of the energy expended comes from her own muscles.  I run multiple errands on the way to my massage so that the car isn't being used for just one purpose. 

So what things are out of the ordinary luxuries to you?  I'm speaking here of things that feel to you like genuine treats or special indulgences.  Much as I love a good book or a great meal, they have become (for better or worse) staples of my daily life.  What goods or services make you feel indulged?  Are those things sustainable?  Is sustainability a relevant issue for you in the things you consider luxurious?  Or do you indulge so rarely that you make a sustainability exception for your luxuries?  What luxuries do you think could be part of a lower-energy future?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Spring Cleaning the Pantry

by: Chiot's Run

Spring cleaning not only applies to the house, but also to the pantry! This is the time of year when I start to make a concerted effort to eat up goods the goods I preserved last summer. Soon enough I'll be pulling out the canning pots and filing jars with this summer's bounty and packing the freezer with fresh berries. This means I must start preparing now. The last thing I want is to end up with jar and jars of stuff from years past and have to throw some of it away. I'm not one to waste food, especially food that I spent time and energy growing and preserving.

This is the perfect time of year to start using up pantry goods. With the coming of warmer weather comes the feeling of optimism. I no longer feel the need to conserve my food resources to make sure they last through the long winter. Those feelings give way to the hope of summer bounty and I finally feel safe eating up the last few jars of tomatoes. I know that in a few months, my tiny tomato seedlings will be producing pounds of fresh summer fruit that will be eaten fresh and canned for next winter.

I find myself often in the pantry looking over jars of goods deciding what I want to make for dinner. If I spot a few jars of tomatoes, pepper relish, fire roasted red & jalapeno pepper, and a few jars of chutney, I'll make a big pot of chili. From the freezer I'll add some ground venison, beef stock and some frozen beet greens or spinach. If I'm lucky I'll have a bottle of beer as well to add for good measure. A few heirloom beans will also get added to the pot if there are any left in the pantry. If we have some frozen milk left from our winter stores, I'll make some fresh mozzarella, and who doesn't love a sprinkling of fresh spring chives on top of any dish this time of year?

If I find myself with a lot of extra tomatoes, I'll make up a big batch of marinara. This will top fresh homemade pasta, or even a pan of lasagna if I have the time and energy to make cheese and noodles.

Not only do all these dishes help clean out the pantry of last year's bounty and make way for the new, they help save me time during this busy season in the garden. A big batch of of chili can be eaten on for many days as can a big pan of lasagna (and they get better with age). If I make an extra big batch I'll freeze it in meal sized portions for quick meals during the busy days of spring and early summer. My goal is to have most of the jars in the pantry empty by tomato canning season and to have most of the berries eaten from the freezer before the strawberries come on.

Do you make a concerted effort to eat up items in your pantry to make way for the new season's bounty?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Two birds with one stone

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

In our efforts to raise our own food, sometimes some of the tools we require can be an expensive part of the deal. Especially fixed equipment or buildings. To spread out the cost a little, we try to plan for multiple uses when we are planning and purchasing. By applying the permaculture principle of stacking we can utilize the same space and expenditures many times over, and sometimes simultaneously to help defray the initial cost.

When we had our large pastured poultry laying flock, we required a brooding space for a large number of chicks. What we didn't want was a single purpose building that would be outfitted just for chicks for a short number of weeks. And since heat lamps were involved for 24 hours a day for a while we also knew we didn't want to just partition off the corner of one of our existing wood buildings. Having heard too many tales of entire barns burning due to heat lamp failure, we decided not to put all our eggs in one basket. While the baby chicks were an important part of our operation, replacing a barn for $500.00 worth of chicks just didn't seem worth it.

What we settled on was a small hoophouse with metal framing and plastic covering. It would allow for natural light, provide semi-safe housing for baby chicks, and in case of fire, would be fairly easy and quick to replace. And a plus in our minds, also service as a great place to start early plants for the garden, or even grow a small quantity of plants after the chicks had outgrown the space.

For approximately $500.00 we purchased the bows, purlins, hardware, plastic, wire, and lumber to build a 20' x 20' unheated brooder/greenhouse. The chick area is 15' x 20' and that leaves a 5' x 20' space for feed and supply storage, our "personnel" area.

While it may seem cost prohibitive for a smallholding or farm. A smaller model with these ideas in mind may work better, but I have to say, these buildings, (we have two) have paid for themselves over and over.

A place to brood chicks, gather their nitrogen rich manure with bedding for the garden, and later in the year a hothouse for warm weather crops. By changing uses, parasite cycles are broken, giving "rest" to this plot of land and allowing us to spread the expense over several endeavors.

Normally, I start my plants on the chick hover before the chicks arrive. This year, we had terrible mice problems in the sprouting seeds. So we rigged up a hillbilly plant bench from leftover plywood and baling twine.

When it was time for the chicks, I moved the plants to the personnel area. The plants still need the warmth of the greenhouse, but I didn't want to be watering the chick bedding area daily. I did leave the makeshift plant bench though, and have been using it as place to store chick stuff. It's handy, and since it isn't fixed if it becomes cumbersome, I can take it apart in 5 minutes.

And actually it is quite pleasant to work transplanting, with the sound of the chicks nearby. I am sure they are getting the benefit of having growing plants in their space, and they are getting used to us because we are in there a lot puttering about with the veggies.

So this may not be for everyone, but I just wanted to throw the idea out there, to think outside the box in regards to our farmsteads and gardens. You never know what kind of ideas will grow!

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Happy Birthday Time!

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

It's birthday time at our place!

Heath's first birthday - a water party on Boxing Day (summer in Australia)

We have some birthday traditions such as the birthday child choosing their own cake, and the evening meal for their birthday. On the morning of their birthday we gather around the dining table or on Mum & Dad's bed whilst they unwrap their gifts and open the cards which have come in the mail. There are often a number of little handmade, wrapped gifts from siblings which are given with pride and accepted with grace. Brithday cards are secretly handmade by a sibling, and given with the gifts from the whole family.

During the day we will often have friends over for morning or afternoon tea under the trees in our garden (weather permitting) with a cake and some yummy fruit and other foods to share. The table is often decorated with a colourful cloth and fresh flowers collected by the other children.

Friends visiting for afternoon tea near the waterfall

We enjoy the traditional candles and "Happy Birthday" song as well as clapping for their age and three cheers. We always have a cake at night, even if we've had one in the daytime, just so we can turn down the lights and enjoy the magic of a cake lit by candlelight. Sometimes for this cake we use different crockery or glasses for the birthday meal, and there is always a beautiful tablecloth and centre candle, and quite often more flowers.

Birthday cards are displayed on a magnetic framed board which hangs above the season table. Photos of the birthday child are also displayed their during the weeks preceding and following their special day. Often some baby photos and recent photos will be side by side. A photograph is taken of the birthday child with their cake each year, marking milestones in their childhood photo albums. Sometimes the birthday child will wear a special item of clothing, or a cape and crown from our dress-up basket.

We don't always have parties. We have had a fairy party, a musical party, a teddy bear's picnic, trip to special places followed by cake in the park... But even when there is no big event we always have a special time with family, and perhaps some nearby friends, to share cake and other food, sing and celebrate the birthday child's life.

Bel enjoying cake!

On their birthday, our children don't have to do their chores if they don't wish to, and they can have the choice of a story read or movie watched, as well as what food we eat. It is a day of lavishing extra love and attention on the birthday child.

We all know this song...
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear Lily
Happy birthday to you!

Well, here's an alternative, or second verse (same melody)...
May the angels bless you,
In all that you do,
May the stars up in heaven
Shine down upon you!

There are a lot of birthday verses and stories online which we have often told our younger children, especially. I find that they also like to hear about the day they were born, and the wonderful, cute and funny things about them as a baby.

This one is our version of a favourite...

As I yawn and go to bed,
Laying down my sleepy head,
Mama switches off the light,
I'll still be seven years old tonight.

But, from the very break of day,
Before the children rise and play,
Before the greenness turns to gold,
Tomorrow, I'll be eight years old!

Eight kisses when I wake.
Eight candles on my cake!

During the day, grandparents phone from far away and ask the birthday child about their day, their gifts, and how big they've grown. Receiving their very own phone calls and mail is a special part of having a birthday at our place.

Most of our birthday celebrations and traditions cost nothing, or very little. The focus of birthdays therefore is not on spending, gifts and elaborate parties, but on the child.

I wonder, in what ways do you celebrate birthdays in your home?

A cake for a relative - adults enjoy special treatment too!