Sunday, 31 July 2011

Looking to the past

Aurora @ Island Dreaming

The problems that the world has begun to face (whether consciously or not for the majority) - financial, energy and resource descent, and an increasingly unpredictable climate - signal the onset of a decline in material living standards for many of us - a sizeable number of whom have got used to ever increasing levels of consumption and material wealth over the past decades. How we individually and collectively navigate these challenges will largely determine the quality of life we experience; and I personally do not believe that a decline in material consumption is a one-way ticket to misery and social breakdown.

Last year I finally got around to visiting my city's flagship tourist attraction - the historic dockyard. This is the home of the Royal Navy, and the place that it keeps its historic flagship, HMS Victory. As Victory is now preserved as a museum in dry dock (though technically it is still in commission) and has been restored and patched up several times over the centuries, it offers a sanitised view of life on a 250 year old warship. There were no fires, slop buckets, wounded soldiers, or unwashed sailors on board when we visited and conditions on board would have been grim when the ship was in active service.  But it did show that humans have lived and thrived with far fewer resources, far less complexity, than we have today. 

Fast forward a century, or take a walk a few hundred yards across the dockyard, and step on board HMS Warrior, the most advanced warship of the 19th century navy. The British Empire project was well under way, and it shows - a majestic, iron clad ship boasting the very best engineering and built and furnished from raw materials imported from across the world. By today's standards, it is still rustic (no running hot water, no electricity)  but it shows something of how humans climbed up one side of a bell shaped curve to the level of energy and resource consumption we enjoy today. Can the past show us a possible path down the other side of that curve?

 In the UK there has been a resurgent interest in WWII era house keeping since the onset of the financial crisis. This era, more so than more recent economic recessions, inspires people. Government pamphlets from the era covering everything from victory gardens to 'make do and mend' have been republished, and wherever you are in the world, you have probably seen at least one piece of merchandise or blog buttons with the phrase 'Keep Calm and Carry On' splashed across it. 1940's cookbooks have been reprinted and ration diet challenges taken - none of which is necessarily a bad thing when it inspires people to face the material challenges in their lives with 'Blitz spirit'.

The problem with looking to the past for inspiration on how to live today is the tendency to over-romanticise things, to look through the prism of the Hollywood movies we may have seen - to believe that society was rosier back then and the hardships that people faced were more severe but somehow more 'real' and endurable than the more familiar, boring challenges we may find ourselves facing today. A discerning eye is necessary when adopting historical practices and 'lost' skills - some make no sense, financially or ecologically, in the modern era. Still, many of us will be engaged in old fashioned, rustic and downright medieval experiments of our own in our quest to lead simpler, less consumption driven lives; and we will extract great enjoyment from them. 

If we can overcome a tendency to romanticise, there are real lessons to be learnt from the past. As humans we have used our ingenuity and opposable thumbs to increase our ability to exploit resources, increase consumption and create waste. Any era before our own shows that it is possible to live with less than we have today; and it is possible to live a good life with much less. Combined with the vast knowledge we now have in physical, environmental and social sciences - knowledge we have traditionally channelled predominantly into growing a consumer society - the practices and perspectives of our less spendthrift forbears might show us a way forward through challenging times. If our ascent has been characterized by increased consumption and  decreasing quality, increased outsourcing and decreasing self reliance and self determination - how might we be able to fashion our descent?

I am currently rereading articles and books from the 1970's and 1980's fuel crises and back-to-the-land movement, and the DIY and craft books that were spawned by that era - because they happened to be my first introduction, many years ago, to the issues we currently face. Much has to be taken with a pinch of salt, much is still valid and inspiring. What periods of history are you inspired by?

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Outdoors and our kids

by Eilleen

Hello everyone!

In my personal blog, I am running a competition for the National Tree Day campaign which is tomorrow.

Did you know that:

- only 13% of our children play outdoors more often than indoors?
- only 35% if our children play outdoors everyday?
- 1 in 10 children play outside once a week or less?

This is a huge difference from my childhood. When I remember my own childhood, I remember riding on my bike and exploring the neighbourhood all day.

My fondest memories were of my brother and I waking up on a Saturday morning, cycling (what I now know to be) 5 kms to a huge playground and we'd stay there all day. We knew it would be time to go home when the street lights would go on!

I remember cycling to the river and swimming with my friends. There is a small cliff face in that river and we'd dare each other to jump off the top and jump in.

I remember cycling even when it was cold - so cold that frost would form on my beanie and my gloves as I am riding!

I remember having tree climbing competitions where we would dare each other on how high we can go.

I want that for my kids......but.....its hard.

I sometimes feel that I should not let my kids out of my sight and if I let them go to the playground by themselves, then I am a bad mother.

I sometimes feel that I just don't have enough time to go outside with my kids and still get dinner done and pay house bills.

I would like them to jump in the river....but the government has now bulldozed the little cliff face next to the river so kids can't jump off there.

I would like them to climb the trees in the public recreation area outside my home.....but the government recently they came and chopped off all the lower branches to stop children from climbing the trees.

The trees without their lower branches

....... because all of that is dangerous....and the government might get sued.

While my children still play everyday outside, I know that they do not spend as much time outdoors as I did as a child.

And that just makes me sad.

I will be outdoors for National Tree Day. I can't join any of the planned activities, but you know what? The outdoors is just a door away. I hope you will be too.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Making Peace with Tomato Horn Worms

When I first started growing tomatoes I used to pick off the tomato or tobacco hornworms and squish them with a rock. Then one year I missed one and spotted it with the tiny white eggs from a parasitic wasp on it's back. Ever since then I've made peace with the hornworms in my garden. I never pick them off or do anything to get rid of them. They get to eat some tomatoes leaves and a tomato here and there in complete peace. Why the change of heart? Making Peace with Horn WormsI don't want to get rid of them and risk the parasitic wasp not having a host for it's eggs. I also don't want the birds to go hungry, as they seem to find these giant juicy worms a complete breakfast. The truth is they're not that damaging to tomato plants and I can plant extra plants just for them. Perhaps a little defoliation is good for tomatoes this time of year and I don't mind losing a couple tomatoes, I have plenty to go around. The truth is that often when we step in we upset the balance of nature and make our problems worse down the line. If we squish or kill all the hornworms we'll never have the braconid wasps in our gardens. Without the wasps we'll end up with more hornworms, aphids and other insects. We may also inadvertently kill a hornworm that has already been parasitized by a wasp since it takes a few days before the white worms appear on their backs. Making Peace with Horn WormsI'm convinced that I'm encouraging biodiversity in my garden by making peace with hornworms and other things viewed as "pests". I have noticed that the less I interfere with nature the more balanced things become, even in my small quarter acre garden. I encourage you to let the hornworms and other pests live and see how everything balances out in a few years!

Do you have any pests that you've made peace with?

Here's an interesting article from the BBC about how plants can send out SOS signals to predatory insects when they sense they're being attacked by caterpillars & other insects. And the specifically studies hornworms.

Wild Berry Season is Almost Here

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Strawberries and raspberries in the garden are trickling in and finding their way into the freezer, but we are a ways off from picking wild blackberries.

The most plentiful blackberry around here is the Himalayan blackberry Rubus armeniacus, a terrible invasive plant that will take over if you turn your back. There seems to be no way to completely eradicate this noxious weed, so we fight it for most of the year and resign ourselves to picking the berries when they ripen in August. A true love hate relationship. It's hard to resist stocking the freezer with these plentiful berries.

Irma Harding, my home economic advisor reminds me that I need to rotate my freezer stores if berry season is imminent, so with that in mind, blackberry pie has been on the menu lately.

These berries are juicy, so to avoid the filling boiling over the pie pan in the oven, I thaw the berries thoroughly and let them drain. Depending on the deepness of my pie dish, I may only use half of the reserved juice.

I like to use tapioca starch in my pie fillings, mixing it thoroughly with the sugar for the pie before adding to the berries. For this pie baked in a 9 x 13 pan I used 1/3 cup of tapioca starch, for a medium thick filling. Not firm, just juicy enough to go well with ice cream.

Add the sugar and thickener to the drained berries.

Stir gently to mix and let the mixture macerate to draw more juice from the berries. I do this step before I make the crust. By the time I get the crust ready, the berries have released more juice and I can decide if I need to add any of the reserved juice. If you have fresh berries, letting them macerate overnight or at least a few hours with half the sugar will release the juice. I like to drink sweetened blackberry juice much more than the task of cleaning bubbled over and burned pie filling.

Baking on a catch pan helps keep the cleanup to a minimum. The taste of the pie more than makes up for a little scrubbing. Delicious! Time to fill the freezer again...

Saturday, 23 July 2011

No sew doily scarf

by Eilleen

Hello everyone!

Well, its proven to be a cold winter here in Australia's capital. While the temps have been around the 10 degree celsius mark (about 50 degrees farenheit), freezing winds with a chill factor of about -1 C (or 30 F)have been sweeping through much of the southern east coast.

Anyway, I thought I'd share this easy, frugal (and green) idea for a scarf. Basically, grab a few doilies together.

Tie the doilies end to end with a ribbon.

And voila! A scarf.

I wish you all a fun weekend ahead. :)

Friday, 22 July 2011

Braiding Garlic

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Living in a small house, with limited storage options, most of my decor serves the dual-purpose of beauty and storage. I like the look and usefulness of hanging my annual garlic harvest as a decorative braid inside my open pantry. Attention paid to careful harvest and ample curing time, combined with the cooler air of the open closet where my pantry shelves share space with the tank for our well, means I'm still eating from last year's braid (below) as I finish up this year's harvest.

I've never had much luck storing hardneck garlic much past the end of the year, so now grow only my own softneck garlic. After more than 20 years of planting the best ones each succeeding year, I have my own heirloom, perfectly adapted to my own climate. The process starts in late autumn before, when I dig in a layer of compost then plant the biggest, nicest fresh garlic cloves held apart from the harvest just a couple of months prior. Winter snows soon water them in, and by late February the young garlic shoots are up an inch. Then it's just a matter of making sure they get a weekly watering, either from Mother Nature or a few hours worth of soaker hose.

By July, each plant ideally has at least 10 leaves. When the oldest leaf or two is about half dry, as well as the top inch or so of the tips of the rest, I pull the soaker hose away, gently bend the tops down, and let the plants dry in the ground for a week. I then loosen the soil with a shovel and lift each bulb out of the ground, never just pulling by the tops. The neck of the bulb is quite fragile and I want the leaves there to shrink-wrap the bulb instead of breaking.

I lay the garlic on a screen in the deepest shade out in the yard, the leaves of one bunch covering the bulbs of the next. When the dirt has dried enough to rub most of it away, after a couple of days, I clean the bulbs and use scissors to clip the roots off short, rubbing any dirt or rocks out of the center. Each intact leaf forms a layer of protective wrapper around the bulb inside as the garlic cures. The more wrapper layers, the longer the garlic will keep. Since my garlic is decorative as well as useful, I'll sacrifice the top, driest layer to get to a prettier white layer underneath. But only one, maybe two at the most (if that layer has broken at the neck), and then gently scrape any remaining dirt off with a fingernail. The cleaned bulbs, with the outermost wrapping still intact up beyond the neck, are then left outside in the shade for a couple more days. I want the stems limp but not crackly-dry.

Big bulbs last longest. I use my garlic braid from the bottom up to keep it looking nice as it hangs in my pantry. So I start my braid with three of the smallest bulbs. Braiding with the bulbs on top, I just add in another bulb whenever there is room. The stem being added in is always added to the center of the braid, so that a section immediately crosses over it, locking it into place. When adding a bulb to either side, its stem is added to the top of the bunch that have just been crossed over to the middle.

Occasionally, as the bulbs get bigger, I might have to make a couple of filler passes of the braid alone so that each bulb will have enough room for good air circulation all the way around. As I braid, I'll run my hand up each section periodically to crunch the crispy dried leaf tips away. It keeps the braid from getting too crunchy to work with, and will mean less mess in my pantry later. When I'm finished, I have a long braid of bulbs, alternating center and sides, with a flat plait on the back that will hang against the shelf support post throughout the year.

I hold out a couple of the biggest bulbs, for planting come October, and finish by braiding to the ends. Bending that over to the back side, I use cotton string wrapped tight and knotted, then criss-crossed tightly up and down the top section to bind it, then knotted again, and finally the ends tied into a hanging loop. I'll leave this year's braid hanging in the open cutout between kitchen and living room, where there's warm and gentle air circulation, for another month. The wrapping layers dry, the necks shrink, and the braid stays strong enough to hold the weight. This year, from a patch 2.5 x 4 feet, I have a 2.5 foot braid, just short of 5 pounds, of 40 nice garlic bulbs. I'll use up the twelve left from last year first, cooking, canning and pickling, plus the few bulbs that were too small or with necks too weak to braid. For the two of us, a bulb a week throughout the year is just about right.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Simplifying Change

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

Our local LETS group has been leading a Transtion movement across our region over the past couple of years. At a recent film night event, we had a a discussion forum including a panel of representatives from LETS, Transition FNQ and ASPO, as well as Permaculture Cairns, Food Lovers Club, Seed Savers Up North and BioN Water Synergetics. Representatives from our regional council and local media also attended. We had an Indigenous elder give a Welcome to Country speech on behalf of the Ngadjon-jii people, telling about his childhood in Malanda.

The discussion was focused on transitioning our region through climate change, Peak Oil, food security and financial instability. Resilience and relocalisation were deemed the ideal outcomes.

It doesn't seem to matter how many meetings and events we run, what sort of newsletters we publish or how much media attention we get... People seem to still need to be reminded as to HOW they can make changes.

Where we live, a possible pathway to these outcomes is working with our local council while they develop a community plan for the next 10 years. We can continue building community and making changes by sharing responsibility for the future of our region.

Some of the personal actions we can take to mitigate any effects of possible crises include:

  • supporting our community currency – Tableland LETS
  • growing your own food
  • buying local wherever possible
  • car pooling
  • ensure your house uses as little power as possible
  • talking to all your neighbours and friends about change

These actions will also save us money and create more secure communities. What other simple actions do you suggest, which people can take TODAY?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Agents of Change

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin & Little Green Cheese.

I have been reflecting today, and without trying to big note myself or being seen to be big headed, I believe that I have a bit of a talent to help people through changes with a couple of simple methods. 

Change in peoples lives, especially the few about to hit mankind in a few years, can cause all sorts of emotions manifest themselves.  From terror, to guilt, to a sense of excitement, anticipation and opportunity.  There are many people who resist change, and would rather continue on with the status quo, however there are some people who relish change and create opportunities to bring others along for the journey, but in a special sort of way.

One of my ways to promote change is to lead by example.  This is something that I learnt whilst in the military many moons ago.  I learnt that you cannot ask someone to do something effectively, being a task, behaviour, or change a personal value, if you don't show that you practice that task, behaviour or have that value yourself.  Sure, in the military they most probably do it because of the command structure and discipline, however they won't do it willingly and morale usually suffers.  On the other hand, if they see the person leading by practising what he/she is preaching, then they usually follow willingly and with enthusiasm.  I attempt to live up to this "lead by example value" in all aspects of my life. That was one of the reasons that I didn't begin writing my personal blog until at least 6 months after our family began our journey towards a sustainable lifestyle.  Well, that and everyone urged me to write a book about what I had done, but I thought a blog was a better idea due to the interaction you receive via comments.  I wanted to explain the how and why I turned green and what my motivation was.  You can probably tell by the way I write that I am enthusiastic and passionate about all things green and sustainable, but you probably didn't know that one of my personal values is that I do what I say I am going to do.  Another of my core values is to try and not let people down when I make a promise. I believe that it is these simple values that rub off on people, who either know me in person or read about my exploits via my writings.  It inspires people to act in a positive way, towards a common goal. 

The second special way of helping people change is to do things in such a way that they think it was their own idea in the first place.  This can be in the form of a simple suggestion, a comment during a TV ad, or leaving a magazine or book conspicuously open to a certain page at work or at home.  It can be in the form of harmless propaganda, like a poster showing benefits of a certain way of doing things.  People may think that this is a deceitful way of getting things done, but that is exactly how marketing and advertising works all around us as well.  I believe that if you have a message to give, you might as well utilise the best known way to do so.

Let me give you a simple example.  We used to spend lots of money on cleaning products at home, but now we use only two or three main items for cleaning bathrooms and the like.  Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda are about all we use, the type of cleaning products that our grandparents used to use.  Now to begin with my wife Kim detested the smell of vinegar and didn't believe that bicarb would do as good a job as the shiny, new, advertised chemical petroleum based products.  I had to subtlety convince her so it sounded like her idea.  I must say that I was slightly deceitful in both examples.  The first was we ran out of Windex (a blue liquid window cleaner that stinks and makes me sneeze) kind of on purpose (my bad!).  I then suggested that we try vinegar and newspaper to clean the shower glass.  After a quick demonstration on how easy the vinegar got rid of soap scum and cleaned the glass, Kim was hooked.  That is all we use now, and I only had to make it seem that it was her idea.  Another example was with bicarb soda.  Once again we accidentally ran out of dishwasher tablets (you know, the ones that cost a fortune and are toxic).  I suggested a few tablespoons of bicarb in the bottom of the machine and some vinegar as rinse aid.  Guess what, as I expected it worked well and the dishes were wonderfully clean.  It even got rid of the smell in the machine!  Once it clicked, Kim thought that we should use it to clean the shower recesses as well which works very well to remove soap scum.  I even showed her my very cool method of making a stinky sink drain smell fresh and clean by pouring quarter of a cup of bicarb down the drain and then 5 minutes later tip the same amount of vinegar, and watch the fizzy show and the smell goes away and unblocks the drain.  Much better than highly caustic Draino!  As you can see, all it took was a comment or spark and it then became that other persons idea.  No fights, no arguments, no right or wrongs, just change for the better.  Now she tells all her friends about the miracle of vinegar and bicarb. She is a clever lady, my Kim!  Love her to bits. 

So, I suppose that the moral of the story and my method/talent that I have learnt through experience is that if you tell some one to change they won't and will resist like a stubborn toddler or teenager, but if you lead by example and help them with and along the journey, change is not only inevitable, but fun as well.  This is how I find making changes to my sustainable lifestyle, easy, painless and fun.

If any readers have other subtle ways to promote change and convince others towards a more sustainable way of living (other than screaming at them), please add them via a comment.  This could turn into quite a little toolbox of tips!

Friday, 15 July 2011

cucumbers in a small garden

by Francesca @ FuoriBorgo

Last time I wrote about how I failed to grow chickpeas this year (here). As is always the case for a gardener, a crop that fails is a disappointment, but a good potential learning experience too. This time I learned that chickpea plants aren't very productive, and that, in order to harvest enough chickpeas for our family of five, I would need far more garden space than I currently have. Which brings me to my subject today: growing cucumbers in a small garden. Unlike my chickpeas, cucumbers are my pride and joy this year.

cucumbers in a small garden

Don't you love cucumbers in the summer? We do! Crispy, fresh, and juicy, cucumbers have the perfect texture and flavor for light and cool summer dishes. But I hadn't grown cucumbers for the last few years, due to a lack of space.

This year though I decided to experiment a little with new growing methods: because of space constraints I can't let cucumber plants trail across the ground, and because a trellis for them would be in the way and shade other crops, I planted cucumbers by the back wall of the garden. This is dry-wall masonry covered by thick ivy which is impossible to remove, though I suspect snails and slugs hang out here, keeping cool while waiting for the right time to pop out and devour my lettuces and leafy vegetables. It was time to find a good use for this pesky ivy.

(Of course, had I fenced my garden in against wild boars and deer, as I'd intended, I would now be using that fence as trellis. Instead, I put off building a fence, made a scarecrow (here), and thanked my lucky stars that the boars and deer haven't found my garden ... yet...)



Turns out that the ivy works great as a support for my cucumber plants, which trail happily up the ivy stems as they grow, and are thriving - I now feel ever so much better about that ivy! When you garden in a small space, it's great when you can get everything working harmoniously together - even the snail motels.

For specific technicalities on growing cucumbers, check out the excellent BBC Gardening Guide here.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Early July Garden Checklist

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Early July in the garden is certainly when I think I suffer from TMG (too much garden.) Everywhere I look I see something that needs doing right now. Instead of putting out fires I try to methodically work my way through the list and the garden chores.

My garden checklist:

Weed - this slows down by late July.

Hill potatoes.

Thin root vegetables.

Harvest garlic scapes.

Side dress heavy feeding crops like corn, brassicas and squash.

Continue trellising tomatoes.

Secure pepper plants to stakes.

Continue seeding succession crops.

Start transplanting first winter crops.

Seed fall and winter crops.

That's what I am up to in my garden, what's on your July garden checklist?

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Quest for Fresh Cilantro

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
One of my favorite, late-summer, treats is whipping up a bowl of pico de gallo (PEE-ko de GUY-yoh). I'll eat it on just about anything, especially as a dip with corn chips. It means beak of the rooster (don't ask me why) in Spanish. It's a fresh relish made from minced fresh tomatoes, onion, jalapeno pepper, and cilantro - and best when everything is fresh right out of the garden. Cilantro is a strong-tasting herb. You either love it or hate it, so you can leave it out if you're one of those that can't stand it. But to me, pico really needs those chopped up little bits of green leaves.

My main problem, however, is that cilantro is quick to bolt once our high-desert summer heat gets here. By the time my tomatoes and chiles are ready, the cilantro has long-since gone to seed (but not a total loss - cilantro seeds are better known as coriander, tasty in their own right).

So my on-going quest is to have fresh green cilantro leaves readily available out of my garden throughout the summer. There is a slow-bolt cilantro, so I've been growing that. It's a little better, but really doesn't last more a week or so past regular cilantro out in the garden, if even that.

So my next endeavor was planting my cilantro in a pot up on the deck. It was easier to keep watered (but not too much - cilantro likes it on the dry side), and the deck is shaded later in the afternoon. But individual plants were still pretty quick to bolt when the temperature starts climbing. The leaves are still tasty once cilantro starts sending up a seed stalk, but they shrink to almost nothing. It's too much work for too little yield, then.

My next experiment was really crowding the Slow-Bolt cilantro plants in their pot. With so many growing together, I can harvest a handful of fresh leaves by clipping a different section of the pot with scissors, instead of trying to clip individual branches off one plant. The clipping method removes the seed stalks early too, so the plants keep producing leaves. We had quite a long, cool, start to summer, but the heat finally got here a few weeks ago.

I'm happily surprised that I'm still harvesting lots of fresh cilantro with this method. But the plants finally are trying to bolt, and fresh tomatoes and chiles are still weeks, even months, away. It would be nice, but I really don't think my cilantro pot will make it until then.

Drying the cilantro isn't an option - it just doesn't taste the same. So my experiments are now to figure out how best to preserve that fresh cilantro taste. Most articles say to stand clipped cilantro stalks in a glass of water, cover with a ventilated plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator. I've found that might work for a day or two, but after that the tops wilt and the parts in the water get dark and slimy. I've had better luck washing the fresh cilantro, then getting it as dry as possible - after spinning it, I lay it out in the dish drainer and fluff it 'til dry but not wilted - and then storing it dry in a covered dish in the refrigerator. I can hold fresh cilantro for a week that way. But that's certainly not gonna make it 'til tomato time.

I could make a pesto out of it, whirring the leaves with a drizzle of olive oil into a paste, packing it into a jar with a layer of oil on top, and refrigerating or freezing it. That's my last-ditch option. I'd get the flavor but not the texture of the little bits of fresh leaf in my pico, and it would be way too much oil (although that could work for cooked dishes needing that added cilantro flavor). I don't want to cook the leaves - I want to preserve the fresh taste. Today, I tried drizzling a bowlful of fresh leaves with just a little bit of oil, tossing them until they were all coated, and then freezing them. Instead of turning black, like fresh leaves do when frozen, the oil-coated frozen leaves are still green. Stored in an air-tight bag in the freezer, I'll see how they keep until tomato time, and if/how the taste keeps. I'm thinking it just might work to mince the frozen leaves and stir them into the pico before they thaw. Check back for the results in late August.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Farm Sitting

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

We have been so busy! I agreed to farm sit again for my neighbours just under 2km up the road (we are almost direct neighbours, there are very few properties between us). And the day after they left, I took surprise delivery of a new house cow! The cow is on loan to me while Lucy is dry, and she is just lovely. So I have once again been juggling twice-a-day milking with twice-a-day farm sitting!

I take one or more of the children with me when I visit the farm. It's nice to have their help and company, and sometimes we've had jobs which take more than one set of hands - like manouvring hungry goats so I can squeeze out of the feed room door, holding gates ajar, tipping 20kg bags of grain into high storage drums and dragging a billy goat back into his paddock!

When our neighbours go away, they give us a tour of the gardens and animals, reminding me how to pump water and where everything is... They give me a key and some contact numbers, and tell me the date they'll leave and return. I always take notes so that I can remember the right feed mixes and other details.

Since I'm not staying at the farm, I carefully plan our days to allow enough time for all of our tasks. Sometimes we do some preparation for the morning if I know we'll be rushed. Sometimes we'll do a lot of extra work one day so we can pop in and out more quickly the next. When we're going via the farm on our way home, we have our work clothes, boots and raincoats in the car. By being really organised with our farm sitting tasks, just as we try to be with our own farm, the extra work isn't such a very big deal (as it could be)!

Some of our tasks include:
* feeding and watering animals - some twice daily, some daily, some every couple of days
* cleaning up after animals as necessary
* collecting eggs, harvesting from the garden
* watering the gardens, potted plants and seedlings, covering plants in case of frosts etc
* collecting mail
* caring for any sick or injured animals, often taking them home with us

The best things about farm sitting are:
* spending time with different animals (goats, turkeys, chickens, ducks, aviary birds, cats, and guinea fowl this time)
* walking in others' gardens - admiring their planning, and harvesting the bounty
* getting some exercise - squeezing farm jobs into an hour, up and down hills, carrying buckets etc, is hard work!
* doing something to help others - our neighbours could not go away if they didn't have reliable farm sitters
* sharing chores with my children - team work, being outdoors, learning together, supporting each other
* earning some (shared) pocket money!

The worst things about farm sitting are:
* when things go wrong, like a sick animal
* working in the rain and mud
* dealing with animals we aren't comfortable around
* the extra responsibility - we must be there, no matter what's going on in our own lives - there's no one else!

Farm Sitting Resources
It will depend on the level of care (article)
Farm Sitting Checklist (pdf)
Farm Sitters Australia (database)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A glimpse of how extreme poverty can affect me.

by Eilleen

Me and my children

Hello everyone,

I hope you are all having a good week. Readers of my personal blog would know that a couple of months ago, I went on a week-long $2 a day challenge for Live Below the Line. During that week, I was not allowed to live on existing items in my pantry/fridge, nor was I allowed to accept freebies or others offers of meals. Instead, I was to live on $2 a day for all my food and drink. (The reason for why $2, is in this post.)

Having only $2 a day for my food and drink gave me a very small inkling on what it is like to be in extreme poverty. I found the challenge difficult and I posted in my personal blog what I learned and I thought I'd share it here:
When stressed and under pressure, I made bad nutritional choices. This tells me that I am not immune to media/advertising that tell me that non-nutritious food is "fun" and offered an "escape" from the stress. I never realised that I could succumb to emotional eating but there you go.
As a result of my bad nutritional choices, I felt soooo tired all the time. Littlest things like getting dinner done, getting to work in time, organising my children's everyday school needs became an effort.

That despite my bad nutritional choices, there was no joy in my eating during those 5 days. It was a very strange combination of being hungry but not looking forward to eating. Food was just a means to stop hunger pangs. I certainly did not want to eat more of the same!

Without joy in my eating, and without the ability to eat what everyone around me ate, I felt isolated. I was surrounded by friends and family and I ate my own food while they ate theirs...and I felt disconnected. This highlighted for me the importance of the little things we do together to connect and without it, one's entire world becomes different.

I also realised during my $2 a day week, that if this was for real, I probably can not consume according to my values... and that my values would drastically change. And if my values would drastically change, then I would make choices using a value system that would be completely foreign to the way I am now.

And I guess this highlights for me how vastly poverty can affect a person. I wonder, if I was living on the poverty line, would I be emotionally and physically capable to get my kids to school regularly? Would I be able get a job? Would I be able to function and make choices in a way that is socially acceptable? Would I still be "me"? And I suspect that the answer to all of this would be "no". I probably would not.

The more I think of my experience and my constant efforts to live more simply, I realise that living simply is one way that can help prevent one's slide to extreme poverty. If I ever lose my main source of income, I am able to gain some precious time to try to recover because:

1. I do not live above my means. I have a comparably modest mortgage and I do not have a lot of stuff that requires a lot of maintenance. I also make extra payments against my mortgage - not only to pay the debt off faster but also it is an insurance that I can draw on if my circumstances change drastically.

2. I have the skills that already help me how to live frugally. I know how to cook, look after and repair most things. Gone are the days when I had a "disposable" mentality (when I devalued my stuff because I can just buy another).

3. I also now have a vast network of friends who can help me and I am slowly overcoming my reluctance to ask for help. This is actually a big one. I have realised that asking for help is part of being in a community. I love helping others and I need to give others that gift by asking them to help me. By practising how to ask for help for little things, then I am more capable to ask for help for big things if my circumstances change (and sometimes by asking for help on little things, one can prevent having to ask for help for bigger things).

Through the Live Below the Line Challenge, I now know that what is at stake is not only my way of life but also my values and my children's future. This reinforces to me the importance of living simply, frugally and consuming ethically.

I wish you all well.

P.S. Joyful asked in the comments below if my children joined me in this challenge. The answer is, no they did not. They wanted to, but I did not let them. My children watched me eat my food while they ate theirs and we talked a lot about poverty during meal times that week! My daughter wrote a speech (for a competition) on what she learned during that week and I shared it in my personal blog. For those interested, this is the link to her speech:

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin.

Being resilient is about being able to withstand a shock to the normal way of life.  Recently there has been a shock in the form of the Global Financial Crisis and the ongoing economic crisis, however I believe that these are tame compared to what is about to come in the next decade.

For me, two big issues come immediately to mind.  Climate Change and Peak Oil.
Me being a concerned citizen at a climate change rally
You have probably heard a lot about the concept of Climate Change, and we are already feeling the effects of extreme weather events all around the world.  Doesn't it seem strange that we are getting more and more '1 in 100 year events' closer together and they are becoming more like 1 in 10 year events?  Not strange, but normal according the climatologists.  Climate change means more extreme weather, not just getting a bit warmer. Of course the climate changes over time and has many times before in Earth's history, but not in a matter of decades as we are now seeing, we are talking hundreds of centuries for these events to occur naturally. You can't take millions of years of trapped sunshine in the form of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil and release it in to the biosphere in the space of fifty years or so without some repercussions.
Attempting to spread the word in our local newspaper about Peak Oil.
This leads me to the other big issue.  Peak Oil is a term that many might not be familiar with. Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. There was a time when Climate Change suffered the same lack of media coverage.

Peak Oil is not about “running out of oil” – we'll never run out of oil. There will always be oil left in the ground because either it's too hard to reach or it takes too much energy and cost to extract. Ponder on a fact that the economists conveniently gloss over – regardless of how much money you can make selling oil, once it takes an oil barrel's worth of energy and cost to extract a barrel of oil, the exploration, the drilling and the pumping will grind to a halt.

Peak Oil is about the end of cheap and plentiful oil, the recognition that the ever increasing volumes of oil being pumped into our economies will peak and then inexorably decline. It’s about understanding how our industrial way of life is absolutely dependent on this ever-increasing supply of cheap oil.  To learn more about Peak Oil please read a this previous post of mine titled "We Are Oil Junkies".

So why did I start out talking about local community resilience?  Well the two big issues have a lot to do about community resilience, because when these two effects start to bite hard, the outside inputs that supply our towns, cities and countries will begin to slow down, and we have to depend upon each and our local communities more and more just to get by.  This is why the Transition Town movement are going a long way to solving this problem of resilience.

Let me pose this question.  Do you know your neighbours, or at least 10 others in your community?  If you don't it might be a good idea to reach out to others where you live, because soon enough we are going to need each other more than over.

Local resilience begins when like minded people actually care and look out for each other.  People work better in communities, and have done so throughout all of history.  So join a local club to build that community spirit and start to talk about the two big issues that I have articulated in this post.  We have the power to change the way we do things, before the change gets forced upon us!

“Because the best protection isn't owning 30 guns; it's having 30 people who care about you. Since those 30 have other people who care about them, you actually have 300 people who are looking out for each other, including you. The second best protection isn't a big stash of stuff others want to steal; it's sharing what you have and owning little of value.”

- Charles Hugh Smith

How are you building resilience into you family and community?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Weddings and Frugality

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

Recently I was invited to a friend's wedding. When I make that statement it sounds simple enough, only as details of the wedding & pre-wedding showers emerged, it became incredibly complicated.

The Wedding

Takes place on a weekday = a day off of work (unpaid)
Reception takes place 2.5 hours north of the Church in a very rural area = renting a car and possibly an overnight stay (it is assumed guests will book rooms as the hotel is so rural and there are events the next day).
A new outfit because I have nothing to wear having just moved overseas

Shower One
In a rural location, absolutely no public transport there. On a Sunday which means renting a car for the day
Required to give $50, which they will use to buy things
Everyone attending will also need to pay towards the costs of the shower

Shower Two
On a weekday afternoon which means taking a day off work unpaid
All guest (even if you already attended the other shower) are required to give $50 towards the honeymoon
There will be a charge for activities but it is not known how much yet

Anyone trying, through necessity, choice or circumstance, to live a frugal life will know where I'm going with this... Firstly and perhaps most importantly I want to clarify that it isn't my friend's fault that I would need to rent a car or buy a new outfit, those are because of my circumstances and my circumstances alone. But it is increasingly difficult to attend showers and weddings because of the financial implications and expectations of brides & grooms. At the very least, attending each shower will be almost $100 per event, and I was specifically asked to attend both. On top of that it was made clear that the shower gifts do not replace the wedding gift. This week, before I purchased what I planned to give to the couple, I asked if there was a registry for the wedding, I was told everyone invited was asked to give money because they already own 10 homes, already live together and don't need anything, so they want to use the money to splurge. What's more the wedding coincides with my friend's 30th Birthday, so there will be a separate party so that the Birthday isn't over looked. I didn't ask if I'd be asked to contribute financially to that too, because my then I was already doing the math in my head ;)

Doing my sums and taking all the costs out which are because of my individual circumstances (renting a car, time off work unpaid, a new outfit etc), attending the wedding and two showers & paying the minimum suggested for gifts, the total comes to $455, the suggested contribution towards gifts alone is $175.

When I first found out all the facts, I was a tad disgruntled about it all, many people commented on my blog & emailed in outrage that a bridge & groom could expect their guests to contribute so much. There were an array of similar stories and others shared they to have had to send regrets to events because expectations were too high in their particular season of life.

I wish my friends well, marriage is a gift and I hope they have truly found their life mate. For a while I felt incredible guilt about not being able to be there on their special day, but the more I put into practice the skills and thought process' this simple, green & frugal life has taught me, the more honest I was able to be with myself. Right now it simply isn't possible. And there's no guilt with that!

I'd love to hear from you. Do you think it is OK to charge attendance for showers? Is it OK to request monetary gifts in specific amounts? Have you ever had to say no to a wedding or shower because of the financial implications?

Sunday, 3 July 2011

How stocked is your store cupboard?

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

We have been in the process of restocking our store cupboard in recent weeks, in anticipation of my reduced income. For the past year we haven't had a particularly robust store, probably a couple of weeks of mismatched ingredients on hand that we topped up as and when we ran out. This is partly because morning sickness once again put me off all the wholefood staples I normally cook with; and partly because of a few large purchases we needed to make, leaving little money for bulk food shops. In the meantime, food price inflation (and just about everything else inflation) has steadily risen.

We did a shop to end all shops (OK, about 6 months worth of staples) the last time I went on maternity leave. It paid off, 2008 was the year of record food inflation. With hindsight, the 200 tins of cat food was overkill (it certainly was for the poor driver who delivered it to our door; though never before or since has a burly stranger been so admired and adored by our usually skittish cats) but the cupboard full of pulses, grains, frozen veg and tinned tomatoes stood us in very good stead.

There are several reasons that I like to keep several months worth of food on hand:
  • I don't have to shop in supermarkets with any regularity. I hate them, even online shopping is a chore for me. But there are no food Co-ops around here and for bulk shopping in the UK, the big retailers are the only real option for many. 
  • We save on fuel and delivery costs if we do fewer shops.
  • We eat much more healthily when we have a full store cupboard - lots more whole food basics, less impulse purchases at the local shop.
  • We eat much more frugally when we have a full store cupboard - lots more wholefood basics, less impulse purchases at the local shop.
  • It is a lot easier to develop good routines when you always have what you need to hand - bread baking only became routine when we started bulk buying flour, for instance.
  • We can make the best of genuinely good deals on staples - tins of tomatoes and strong bread flour have been recent wins.
  • In an inflationary economic climate, it has saved us money.
  • Knowing I always have food on hand to tide us over any lean patches gives me a sense of security that money in the bank doesn't match.
I know these won't apply to everyone -  for financial reasons some people may choose to build up a store cupboard gradually, whereas we are usually able to put money each month and do it all in one (or two, if we see any particularly good offers) shops every few months before our store is completely exhausted. I know that if I had to rely on public transport or my own two feet I would have to take a more gradual approach. The rest of these points I think remain true however. 

I have seen some passionate debates on forums about food storage and stockpiling - it seems more controversial in the UK than in the US or Australia. I don't understand why as we are the small island that gave the world the phrase '9 meals from anarchy' after the fuel protests of 2000. Some people see storing several months worth of food as alarmist, a symptom of mental illness and even downright immoral. To me it just seems like common sense - a hedge against personal laziness, inflation, unemployment, fuel protests, the wrong kind of snow on the roads or full blown zombie apocalypse.

The food parcel contained some oddities that I wouldn't normally bulk buy - I have about a year's worth of tinned sardines at our present rate of consumption, I haven't eaten corned beef since I was a student and finding a home for 10 bricks of coffee is going to be a challenge in our small kitchen (my hunch is they will end up under the bed), but we are very grateful for the help. We eat well from our pantry, supplemented by fresh produce bought in local shops within walking distance - and hopefully a little more homegrown from the allotment this year.

Personally I think a nation of well stocked cupboards is the way forward in these uncertain times - I would be interested to hear what you think?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Chickpeas below subsistence

by Francesca @ FuoriBorgo

When I wrote about my intention to grow chickpeas in the spring (here), a reader of this blog suggested that instead of buying them from a garden catalog, I simply use chickpeas from the grocery store. Duh! That thought had not crossed my mind at all, even though we've often germinated chickpeas and beans as part of the science experiments with our kids. True, those seedlings never survived, but that was part of the mystery of science - our home-grown science, at any rate.


In the end, I didn't buy chickpeas for planting from a catalog, but I didn't buy them from a grocery store either. I went to a street market with a stall where legumes are sold by weight, in big sacks. There I talked to the stall-keeper, and she assured me that the 2 kilos of chickpeas I was buying were from the last harvest. Those chickpeas seemed especially tasty, and made wonderful soup and great hummus. Some I soaked for several days, and then sowed them in a corner of the garden, as a test. We probably sowed 40-60 chickpeas on that cool day in February.


By mid-May, my chickpea plants, which surprised me with their pretty little oval feathery leaves, were about 30 cm high, and beginning to produce pods.


The cutest pods ever! Small, fluffy, rounded pods, each cradling one or two chickpeas.


I harvested them this week, now that the plants and pods were dry.


The result was a handful of chickpeas.

Because although my chickpea plants were among the plants I cherished and photographed the most, there were only five of them. Five very healthy plants, that thrived in the optimal weather conditions we've been enjoying this year. Alas, only five chickpea out of the 40-60 we planted grew into plants - whatever happened to the others? I guess it's one of the mysteries of gardening ... of our gardening, at any rate!

Have you ever had a crop fail so catastrophically?