Monday, 30 April 2012

A Beginner's Guide to Straw Bale Gardening

by Megan @ The Byron Life

Finally I can give Simple, Green, Frugal readers a run-down on what I have learned from my experiments in straw bale gardening over summer. So many of you encouraged me to give it a try, and I am so glad I did! Below is what I wrote on my personal blog last week, but I really wanted to share it here as another resource for the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. Please add your tips for straw bale gardening in the comments below for us all to learn from :)

Last year, when we were living up in the hills and I was feasting upon home-grown fruit, collecting eggs and making up compost, I started researching how I could recreate some of this experience when we came back home to our own very small, heavily shaded and water-logged suburban backyard.

Previous vegetable and herb gardens had failed because of the poor drainage on our site, so I thought I would have to build a raised garden in the one sunny part of our yard that isn’t shaded out by established palms and trees or buildings, or stick to container growing. As I was researching raised garden beds online I came across the idea of straw bale gardening and it ticked all the boxes for me. I didn’t need to buy, or build, an expensive or complicated garden bed and then buy a tonne of soil to go in it and the height and structure of the straw bales themselves facilitated a natural draining process.  Over time the bales would break down and I would have more compost for my garden.

Five months on I can vouch for the straw bale gardening method. It has had its successes and failures, like any method, but it is something I would recommend trying if you find yourself in a similar situation of not having the right soil or space. The straw bale garden could also be made as an addition to your established veggie patch: you can grow more food and at the same time create mulch for your garden.

This was my first attempt at straw bale gardening.

And pictured here is the start of my second straw bale garden

I’m onto my second straw bale garden now, although the first one is still producing bits and pieces. When I set up the second one I set it up a bit differently to the first and it is doing well so I thought I’d share how I went about it:

1. The literature I’ve read says use straw instead of hay bales as the hay is made from grass and will contain seeds and you don’t want grass sprouting in your bales... However, I have actually used rose grass bales because the local grower assured me they were organic and were cut before seeding. He even showed me an example of a bale that was 12months old that had begun to compost down, but had no grass sprouting – I was convinced and I’ve got no complaints so far.

2. The bale needs to be tied up securely – that is going to keep the bale from breaking apart over time.

3. Place your bales in the right position in your garden to start with before hosing them down. Once they get wet you can’t easily move the bales because they get too heavy. Experiment with placement until you’re happy, then hose.

4. Once you have them in position, thoroughly soak them with the hose – and I mean drench them. If it rains – bonus!  With my first lot of straw bales I just hosed and watered in some seaweed fertilizer and then planted into them with some compost potting mix. However, I recommend “feeding” the bales a lot more than this to start with so your plants have everything they need to thrive. You could buy an organic fertiliser and water that in or you could go with my method which combines straw bale gardening with the permaculture-style no-dig garden method... read on!

The first layers of manure and paper

5. Once I put the bales in place I hosed them thoroughly, then I spread out a layer of animal manure on the top (horse manure as that was what I was able to get hold of at the time) and then I drenched the whole lot again with the hose so that manure soaked deep into the bales.

6. I then did a “lasagne” layering on top of this using paper (I used plain newsprint I had and also recycled newspapers and cardboard), followed by more manure, followed by compost and food scraps, followed by more paper, followed by a layer of mulch from one of the composted-down straw bales I had been growing from earlier, more paper and finally a layer of sugar cane mulch. I had about six layers, you could do more depending on what you have available.

7. Then I let it sit and stink to high heaven for a few days! (This was in summer and the horse manure was crazy stinky) And over the days I watered it some more to keep it moist. All up I let the bales “condition” in this way for two weeks before planting in them.

8. After hosing down your bales you will feel the heat they emit within a few days – it gets really hot in there as the straw starts its chemical reaction toward composting  - forgive me for not being able to describe this to you more scientifically than that. Have you ever seen a pile of lawn clippings “steaming” or felt the warmth of your backyard compost pile? Well, it’s the same process happening in your straw bales – all you need to activate it is water.

9. Wait until it cools down before planting – you don’t want to burn your plant’s roots. My bales heated up then cooled down with around about a week. You can feel how hot it is just by pushing your hand into the bale.

10. To plant your seedlings, just make a little space in the straw, fill this space or hole, with some potting mix and/or compost and plant your seedling in. Voila! A garden in a straw bale.

You can grow most veggies in the straw bales, but I’m not sure how you would go with very tall plants like corn, or root veggies like potatoes... I’ve had success so far with little tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and a variety of herbs including those enormous basil plants which have taken over this summer (and that is a good thing as I love basil). Now I have eggplant, Asian cabbages and lettuce growing... And, I have a surprise pumpkin! It sprouted after I put the compost and food scraps down on the bales and I let it grow. Very exciting.

Eventually your straw bales will compost down and you will need to start a new straw bale garden on top – or do what I’ve done and “recycle” all of that delicious mulch to use on top of the next straw bale garden.
As it composts, the bales will sink and darken and look a tad untidy.  If you don’t want the wild, messy look then maybe you could build a bed from timber or tin or stone etc and use the straw bale method inside the garden bed.  I’m thinking that will be my next move – to keep using the straw bale method, but do it inside a more permanent structure.

Once they do break down they provide such rich mulch, and mine were full of earth worms when I pulled a few bales apart – yay!

Hope this “how to” gives budding gardeners some ideas on how easy it is to start a veggie patch. I’m a complete beginner to this veggie-growing bizo, and I’ve got a lot to learn, but we have been enjoying fresh food from our tiny patch all summer. If I can do it, so can you!



Saturday, 28 April 2012

Help! Simple Recipe for Tomato Paste?

By Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hello everyone!

Well, we are finally at the end of our tomato season here at ONC*.  Readers of my personal blog will know that I'm no gardener.  Having said that, I have been blessed by tomatoes growing in my garden anyway. I didn't plant them there, they just pop up every year at random spots in my garden.  Its been really lovely.

But now that I'm at the end of the tomato season, I have heaps of cherry tomatoes that must now be used up quickly!

I need some tomato paste so I thought I'd try making some from scratch.  So I need your help! Can you please recommend a good simple tomato paste recipe using cherry tomatoes for me?

Thank you! 

*ONC = Our Nation's Capital (Australia)

Friday, 27 April 2012

Chicks on the Coffee Table

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
We keep a small flock of 12-15 chickens. We like the fresh eggs, and usually have enough extra to sell or barter. I have a chicken bucket in my kitchen instead of a garbage disposal, and their manure heats up my garden compost pile. The girls are pets, really, so we keep even those too old to lay until they die of old age.

We keep our egg supply going by buying a few baby girls almost every Spring from the local Feed Store. Since we're only raising a few babies annually, we don't have the need for a big expensive brooding set-up. Our chicken coop is unheated, and the floor has big gaps the babies would fall through, so we can't put the babies outside. An upside-down dog crate, on top of the coffee table in front of the wood stove, works for us.

Chicks are shipped, either to you or to the Feed Stores, the same day they're hatched. The hatcheries will only ship in large groups so they'll keep each other warm in transit, but once you get the chicks keeping them warm is the most important. They survive without food for a couple of days after hatching (if a hen is hatching out a clutch of eggs this allows her to set on the late-hatching eggs a couple more days without having to get up and find food for the first-hatched) because they're still nourished by the remains of their yolk sacs.

My feed store sells chick feed by the pound, so depending on how many chicks we get I'll buy 2-5 pounds - aiming for enough to last for 10 - 12 weeks. I line the crate with paper for bedding (chopped hay or wood shavings could also be used, but that would be too messy in the house. You want to use bedding material too big for them to eat, especially at first, so sawdust isn't a good idea). For their first week, newspaper is too slick for the babies to stand on and could lead to leg problems, so if I've got day-old chicks I'll use paper towels for the first week to 10 days. You also have to check their butts for the first week - cleaning them off with a damp towel if they get pasted up with dried poo.

I put a few more layers of newspaper down each evening, making sure they have a clean and dry place to sleep. A couple of times a week I'll roll up the old layers, put them into the compost bin, and put down a fresh layer. By the time they're about 6 weeks old, they start using their perch. I found a little feeder designed to be used with a canning jar in a second-hand store, but before I got that I'd use a clay plant saucer. The main thing is to use something low enough that they can eat out of and heavy enough that they can't tip it over. The feeder is great! It keeps them from getting inside their feed dish, and scratching food out all over the place.

This year, I'm using a heavy-bottomed water dish designed for a reptile terrarium. In the past, I made a waterer they couldn't stand in from of a soup can with a couple of holes punched near the rim, filled with water, and then flipped into a glazed plant saucer, a pointy tippy rock on top of the can to keep them from trying to perch on it. Once they go outside, I make a bigger one using the same method, out of a coffee can flipped into a cake pan.

Day-old chicks need 90F temperatures for the first week, and then can handle 5º less each week. For their first few weeks, I rig up a red Christmas bulb to hang down close to the floor of the crate. By 3-4 weeks of age, they're ok with temperatures in the middle-70's. By loading up the wood stove each night before bedtime, it stays warm enough for them through the night. They'll be huddled together for warmth in the morning, but quiet. As soon as I start a fire and open the shade to let in the sun, they're up and scrabbling about, happy little cheepers.

Chicks will let you know if something is wrong - they let out a loud, sharp alarm call. When they're content, they make a soft twittering noise. Having the dog crate upside-down puts the windows down at their level, and gives me a place to wedge a perching stick down close. They can be a bit messy scratching about, so I have a big sheet of plastic underneath, wrapped up over the top on the couch side of the crate to catch any bits of food or paper they may toss out. I have to vacuum underneath the table every day, as I leave the room side open. I like watching them watching me when I'm sitting in my chair, listening to them twitter.

This afternoon it was sunny and almost 60º outside so I loaded them into the cat carrier and put them out in the dog run for a couple of hours. They got a chance to sun themselves, scratch about, and dust-bathe. The rest of the flock got the chance to check them out, and I got the chance to give the crate a good cleaning (can't have the house smelling like a chicken coop). It'll be at least another month before they're feathered out enough to go out in the dog run full-time. By mid-July, they'll be big enough to join the rest of the flock in the coop.

I ♥ stoneware

 Aurora @ Island Dreaming

Two Christmases ago we were given a stoneware pizza stone; and it has proved one of the most useful presents we have ever been given. Our oven has a bottom heating element that creates a column of heat that turns the base of anything you are trying to cook black before the rest is even warmed through. This especially spells disaster for anything going in at a high temperature - bread for example. If you consistently fail at baking, it may not be your technique, but your tools. Glass, metal and Teflon (which we avoid anyway) just don't compare if you have an oven like mine.

Our pizza stone has changed all of that. It distributes heat evenly, but insulates the edges of the food from very high heat, giving the bread the best chance at rising and cooking evenly. It also 'seasons' to a smooth, genuinely  non-stick surface that requires very little oiling or lining. As well as loaves, we have also made pizza at least once a fortnight - quick, healthy (if you are frugal with the cheese) and easy to eat on the go if need be. We have since invested in a stoneware brownie tray, not that we eat a lot of brownies (though that might change!), but because it is the perfect size for baking and roasting small quantities of vegetables. I also envision a lot more trays bakes coming from our kitchen in the near future.

New stoneware is a fairly pale, unglazed variant of stone coloured. If it is to perform its non-stick duties well, it will need to be seasoned. An initial seasoning can be achieved by either brushing the new pan with oil and baking it empty at a high heat for an hour or so, or by making sure that the first few times it is used to cook actual food, that that food is quite oily. The latter method is the route we took, the initial result is not as even, but it soon evens out with repeated use and this method also saves energy. The stoneware will initially turn golden, becoming a deeper shade of brown with every use:

Once well seasoned, stoneware can be cleaned with soap if absolutely necessary, although by this time it will be so non-stick that a wipe with a warm damp cloth or short soak in hot water should suffice. Burnt on residue can be scraped off with an old debit card. You can cut food on stoneware, but be warned it will likely blunt your knife, not damage the stoneware itself. The only thing that will truly damage your stoneware is extreme changes in temperature - therefore it should not go from the fridge to a hot oven or vice versa, or be exposed to direct heat. Care should be taken to ensure that stoneware pieces are not dropped or knocked. They may remain intact, but will be weakened and may instead break whilst in use at a later date, when you least expect it.

If you want to invest in stoneware, as always, buy the best you can afford and buy the unglazed variety. You can buy everything from casserole dishes to muffin trays and we are gradually adding pieces to our collection as funds allow. Be prepared to show it a little TLC in the beginning and it will serve you well.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Yet The Band Played On....

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

A topical rework of an article I wrote back in 2009.

Who feels like we are all on the RMS Titanic, sailing full steam ahead, not knowing that an iceberg was about to appear on the horizon?  I know I do most of the time.

The passengers and crew of this mighty vessel were unaware of the fate on its maiden voyage, as are most of the 7 billion passengers also unaware of the fate that awaits the Mothership Earth.  This post is not meant to offend the memories of the Titanic tragedy, but to offer a simple comparison against the events of that voyage, and the plight of our current civilisation and vessel that holds and nurtures us.

There is a strong connection to the RMS Titanic story within our family.  My wife Kim's Great Grandfather, William James Major, was a fireman on-board this ship, and luckily happened to be off-watch at the time the great ship struck the iceberg. Had he been at his post and in one of the boiler rooms fulfilling his duty, his chances of survival would have been slim indeed.  He was one of the crewmen allocated to lifeboat #13, and out of the 2,227 passengers and crew members who set sail, only 705 Titanic passengers and crew survived, him being one of them.  That is a 31.6% survival rate.  There were many factors that lead to the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage, and I shall attempt to compare some of these events to the apparent chosen path of the passengers of Mothership Earth, if we to continue to maintain our current course and speed.

The Titanic was deemed by many to be 'unsinkable' which instilled a false sense of security amongst the passengers and crew.  The captain,  Edward Smith was a capable seaman and this was planned to be his retirement voyage.  Also on-board were Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line.  Mr Ismay had a point to prove, and wanted to be the first trans-atlantic liner to set a new record crossing time.  The bridge crew and the helmsmen were never really in control of this behemoth of a vessel, but mere puppets as you shall read later.  So it was inevitable that the order from Mr Ismay to the Captain upon setting sail from Cherbourg, was to increase power, and therefore speed for the entire voyage.  So with the course set in, and power and speed increased, with no regard of the safety of the vessel. Yet the band played on.

So, imagine the bridge crew as western governments around the world, and liken the Captain, Mr Ismay, and the powerful owner of the White Star line, Mr Ismay's father as some of the greedy corporations of our current time.  We, my friends, are the passengers and crew of this mighty Mothership Earth.  We have increased power for the corporations, relaxation and comfort for all those who choose to sail on her, and everything we would ever need even if we don't know we actually need it yet.

To the unknowing passengers of the Titanic, some of the lifeboats had been removed to make way for a gymnasium for first class passengers.  This left the ship without a full capability of lifeboats should the unthinkable happen to the unsinkable!  I compare this to our current fossil fuel situation.  Very soon or maybe already peak oil and natural gas production will be reached and there will not be enough supply to meet demand.  Many on Mothership Earth will start to miss out, and indeed many already do, and panic will prevail, just as it did on the Titanic.  Yet, the band played on.

Many ice warnings were sent to the ship during the voyage, in fact 21 warnings including 7 on the day of the tragedy.  As ordered, the Titanic steamed onward at top speed towards the reported pack ice that was drifting down from Greenland.  The two radiomen on-board passed the warnings to the bridge officers throughout the day, and these in turn were passed on to Captain Smith who ignored them, due to the insistence of Mr Ismay.  The radiomen were mostly kept busy during the day sending stock market messages from the wealthy on-board and receiving quotes back from the NYSE.  Even when the radiomen received a signal at 11pm from the steamship Californian, who was 10 miles to the Northwest, to inform the Titanic that she had stopped for the night by ice blocking her way.  One of the radiomen on the ill fated ship sent back a snappy reply, "Shut up old man I'm busy."

So to compare the two, the science community have given us all, including governments, many warnings about climate change and so far have done little to prevent its occurrence.  Governments, corporations and economists are infatuated by continued economic growth to the detriment of the resources supplied on loan to us by Mothership Earth.  We are ignoring our own form of ice warnings including melting global ice caps and the most glaciers around the world.  Quite an ironic comparison really.  It was an iceberg that sank the Titanic and it will be melting ice, heated by our thirst for fossil fuels, that sinks and disrupts the climactic patterns of the Mothership Earth!  We are all so busy trying to get to where we think we should be, we are forgetting about the vessel that carries us on our daily voyage.

As the Titanic sailed through the night, the wealthy upper class dined in opulence before retiring for the night, and the steerage class passed time, reassured by the noise of the engines and flow of seawater upon the steel hull.  A new country and life awaited many of them, all hoping for better opportunities.  Little were any of them aware that the ship was not unsinkable and there was a design flaw in the watertight compartments.  If a certain number of the watertight compartments flooded, there was a good chance that the ship would sink.  What does that mean in our current time period?  We drive our cars, thinking that petroleum products will be available at the service station, that there will be food in the supermarket shelves, and water will run when we turn on the tap.  We live in a disposable culture, only recently discovering the value of recycling in the western world.  Opulence in the west, and dreams of a western way of life in developing nations reminds me of the different classes on-board the ship.  The Mothership Earth also has a design flaw of sorts.  A limited carrying capacity and not enough lifeboats!  We have overshot the planets carrying capacity due to the abundance of cheap oil to grow massive amounts of food, and and now are confronted by limited natural resources.  Both issues are similar to the capacity of the ship and the limited lifeboat capacity of the Titanic on that dreadful night.

At 11:40pm in calm weather and on a clear night, the mighty vessel struck an iceberg that ripped a hole in the ships side that was long enough to fill many of the watertight compartments, thus forcing the 'unsinkable' to indeed become sinkable.  The crew of the ship attempted to avoid a head on collision, however due to the vessels speed and a flaw in rudder design, the ship still scraped the side of the massive iceberg.  Yet the band played on.

The passengers and crew were not aware of the impending danger that awaited them, in fact it wasn't until at least 30 minutes later that the crew were aware that she was taking on water.  Many of the passengers slept through the entire incident and had to be woken up to begin abandoning the ship.  From 12:15 am, the radiomen began sending their first distress signal, only to get a reply 10 minutes later from the Carpathia.  Within two hours the Titanic was sinking bow first, with the watertight compartments flooding one after the other, and the radio failing due to lack of power from the flooding engine rooms.  The crew, who were totally unprepared for this type of event struggled to launch what lifeboats they had, and struggled to convince many bewildered passengers that this was necessary for their safety.  Many passengers must have thought that if the ship were so unsinkable, why where they being forced onto the lifeboats.  Many would drown, especially from third class and steerage, simply because there were not enough lifeboats and the ones that were launched were not filled to capacity.  Plus the fact that many were locked behind steel meshed doors preventing them from escaping.

The radio message sent at 1:45 am was the last message and it read, "Come as quickly as possible".  It was sent in hope, as the last of the lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship.  Still the band played on until the deck was so tilted that they couldn't sit and play.  Those not safely on a lifeboat stood little hope of more than a few minutes of survival due to the freezing temperature of the water.  The Captain went down with the ship, as did the first officer, however Mr Bruce Ismay was one of the first onto a lifeboat. 

So, with all the scientific warnings, and with many dire new discoveries of approaching tipping points regarding climate change, with our population having gone from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion in 2011 due to the abundance of cheap oil, and with our resources dwindling whether they be fossil fuels (stoking climate change and overpopulation) or precious minerals and natural resources including a mass species extinction, are we about to hit the a proverbial iceberg?  It paints a pretty grim picture when compared to a real life event that could have been avoided.

As with the Titanic, instead of steaming ahead at top speed, we need to reassess, and slow to avoid the impending disaster that soon await the fate of all who are passengers on Mothership Earth.  Is our rudder too small, and that we may not be able to turn away soon enough, with the speed of progress, growth at all costs, resource depletion, and increasing carbon emissions hold back our inability to act in time.

As for the bridge crew, who I liken to current day governments, are failing to act decisively, because of the pressure exerted upon them by the corporations like Mr Ismay and the board of the White Star Line.  Will this pressure be too great, with vested interest lobbying our poor, misguided crew at every chance?  What will happen the the passengers of Mothership Earth?  Will there be enough lifeboats, or will there be a mass die-off as in the case of the Titanic with the lower classes bearing the brunt of disaster?  These questions go unanswered as yet, but there are signs that we may be approaching the "iceberg", with the majority of the passengers of Mothership Earth blissfully unaware, and still dressed in their finest clothes dinning, or in this case, consuming until they drop, egged on by governments and corporations.  As with the Titanic, there will be survivors, how many are unknown as yet, but there have been estimates that our carrying capacity may be reduced to as little as 500 million to 1 billion passengers without cheap and abundant energy.  A sobering estimate indeed.

I am not saying that disaster is inevitable, we just need to slow or steer away, by reducing consumption, reducing emissions, and living a more sustainable lifestyle. As the passengers of Mothership Earth are loaded onto what ever form of lifeboat is available, will they still be wondering "Why?  I thought we were unsinkable!"

Monday, 23 April 2012

ANZAC Biscuits

Here in New Zealand and in Australia, 25 April is our main day of remembrance. We call it ANZAC Day, and the date was chosen because on April 25 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers fought in their first major battle, at Gallipoli.  New Zealand lost nearly 3,000 troops in the battle - a lot for such a small nation.

ANZAC Day is now a commemoration for all those who have served in New Zealand military operations. We start the day with dawn services at cenotaphs and memorials around the country. Several of my own grandfathers, great-grandfathers and uncles served in WWI and WWII, so I'll be taking time out on Wednesday to remember and thank them.

We have another tradition in New Zealand and Australia every April - we make these Anzac Biscuits. The story goes that these biscuits were sent to our soldiers overseas by their wives and mothers, because the biscuits keep so well... there is a fairly big question mark over the authenticity of that, but it's a nice story all the same. You'll also notice there are no eggs in this recipe - most of our poultry farmers joined the war effort and eggs were rather scarce.

Enjoy these little golden biscuits, which are crisp at first but will get chewier after a day or two. They are truly delicious and a real favourite in New Zealand and Australia.

A quick note - golden syrup is a delicious sugar product made in New Zealand; it's a pantry staple for us. If you don't have access to golden syrup then perhaps try maple syrup or treacle as a substitute - they're the closest thing I can think of.

ANZAC Biscuits
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup dessicated coconut
3/4 cup plain flour
1 cup sugar
4oz butter
2 Tbsp golden syrup
1 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp boiling water

Preheat the oven to 180(C) and line a baking tray or two with baking paper.

In a large bowl, combine the rolled oats, coconut, flour and sugar. In a medium saucepan, gently melt together the butter and golden syrup. Put the baking soda in a cup or ramekin, and add the boiling water. Mix to disssolve the baking soda then pour it into the saucepan with the butter and syrup. It will foam up which is always a little exciting! Stir it with a wooden spoon and tip it into the bowl of dry ingredients. Mix to a crumbly sort of dough. Drop in spoonfuls onto the prepared trays, and leave a bit of room for spreading.

Bake for 10-15 minutes until they are nicely round and a golden colour. Cool on a rack and store in an airtight tin - you could test the myth of how well they keep, but I don't think they'll last long enough for you to find out!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Cultivating the Habit of Carrying A Water Bottle

By Linda from The Witches Kitchen.

You make your habits and then your habits make you.

Isn't it an inspired quote?

I have been trying for ages now to bed in the habit of  always carrying a water bottle - or two actually - a small one in my handbag and a bigger one in my basket. I am making a me that doesn't buy bottled water.

It seems like it should be so simple, and yet every so often I still find myself out and about without a water bottle. I know it's totally illogical, but I cannot bring myself to buy water - it just seems too pathetic.  So what do I do? I buy some kind of flavoured drink instead - which is actually worse for me, more of a waste, and doesn't even work as well as a thirst quencher -  numbers, sugar, packaging, and marketing.   But at least I'm not buying water!

There is only habit standing between me and non-bottled-water-buying me. My home water from the tank is so much nicer, actually sweet. The rain in my part of the world is about as unpolluted as rain can be.  And plastic water bottles are one of thoes thoughtless inanities for which we are trading the future of the planet.

Mostly I carry plain tank water in my bottle. Sometimes I add a little squeeze of citrus juice - lemon, lime, tangerine, finger lime. Or a sprig of mint or peppermint. If I am taking a packed lunch, a cold water bottle keeps it all cool. I have a really nice metal water bottle that I picked up at a garage sale.  There is really no reason at all ever to buy water. It would be funny in an absurd way if it weren't so utterly tragic. 

How do you create good habits, and make them stick fast?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Garage Sale

by Amanda of Amanda Brooke

We've been de-cluttering and sorting through our home in recent weeks in preparation for a garage sale. With the attitude that if we don't use it or need it there is a pile of unwanted goods in one corner of our living room growing bigger in size as the weeks go by. Any items we don't want to try and recoup some money from we have donated to local opportunity stores. It's a messy time for us, but very cleansing too!

I posted a link to a website I discovered last week on my Facebook business page for the National Garage Sale Trail. (You can click on the image to be taken to the website) I was impressed by this concept in that it involves the entire nation, promotes selling of goods instead of throwing things into landfill and I thought it would be a good incentive to set a date for ours and become involved. Our local shire is participating and they are providing a list of sales registered with the event in our local area.

One lovely reader of my Facebook page interestingly commented that she believed that the 'Garage sale' was 'dying' and that online selling was replacing them. I was surprised by this as the garage sale is alive and well in our local area with some 10 to 20 listings each week in the classifieds of our local paper. Whilst I agree that online selling is popular and Garage sale numbers may lessen over the years I just couldn't imagine them being a thing of the past. Then I started to wonder is it a reflection of the areas we live in or am I personally worried as I love the community feel of a garage sale and don't want to see their numbers diminishing? Are garage sales less common in more suburban areas? Are they more popular in 'country' areas? Are younger generations more keen to sell online than host a sale? Am I alone in that I love a garage sale...having a good rummage...learning about the history of an item from the original owner...and would prefer to view items before purchase and not have to 'bid' for them? Do local councils make it too difficult to hold sales?

I would really love to hear from readers here from all over the world. In relation to your community do you feel that garage sale/yard sale numbers are diminishing and do you imagine that they will lessen as the years go by to be replaced by online selling?

Amanda x

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Our Personal Food Security

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Personal food security can come in many shapes. It may be a pantry of stored goods if you don't have land, or it may be a relationship with a farmer in the form of a CSA or local farmers market. Because we do have land, our personal form of food security takes shape in our livestock and our gardens. For this post though, I'm just going to talk about our vegetable gardening and specifically what season extension means to us.

We have several lines of defense that we employ in our garden, mainly an unheated greenhouse and variety selection for cold hardiness. Although our last three springs have been very cool and wet, that is still really the norm for our rain forest area. Our ground is rarely dry enough to work until late April at best, and sometimes into May. Our maritime climate is mild, but damp and cool, making it hard to even bring some common warm weather crops to ripeness in a normal summer. That's just the way it is. Instead of bemoaning the fact about the weather or wet soil conditions it's much more uplifting to just adapt and get on with gardening.

No, a greenhouse and row covers are not natural, but they are really a pretty passive way to make an end run around weather and pest conditions, and they allow me to stay home and grow food for most of the year, instead of driving 15 miles to the nearest store to buy "fresh" from California food. Or even sillier in my case, driving 25 miles to buy fresh from Oregon vegetables that have traveled 85 miles and been grown in the pretty much the same conditions that I can duplicate right here with a hoophouse and some row cover. I prefer to stay home and grow my food.

Hakurei turnips under row cover.

Inexpensive row cover can help you avoid using pesticides and really make a difference on the success of many crops. If you're careful, the row cover can be re-used many times.

Five Color Silverbeet.

Our experiment last winter was to take the cover off the greenhouse to avoid any snow events, and to expose the soil to the vagaries of the winter weather. To that end we planted cold hardy (in our area) crops that we hoped would take us through the winter and into spring. The stalwarts turned out to be Swiss Chard, various Kales, and Bok Choy. When it was time to plant for spring though, we had to make the decision of what to keep on and what to kill out. We harvested 10 pounds of kale greens and fed the rest of the kale to the laying hens, and decided to dig up the chard plants and replant them after working the soil, we did that with our strawberry bed as well. The chard plants have been providing us with some greens while we wait for our new plantings to grow to harvest stage.

Red Long of Tropea onion.

When I look at our greenhouse, I see a garden, not long rows of any one thing, but a climate I can manage while I wait for our outside gardens to be ready for planting. One half is devoted to beds of many different things, and the other half is reserved for our warm weather crops that will be planted when the weather moderates a little.

Tristar everbearing strawberries.

Mustard bed.

Soon our greens will be ready to harvest and will make a welcome addition to the nettles and dandelions we have been able to gather.

That's just a peek into our part of our food security, what type of methods to you use to bring food to your pantry and table?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Between Seasons

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

In our garden, we are between seasons.  It started to cool off, but then a little more monsoon rain came along...  So what is meant to be Autumn isn't quite so.  Everything is a bit mixed around, the stone fruit seem to be shedding leaves, growing leaves and budding with pretty blossoms all at once!  The chickens don't know whether to go broody, moult, lay eggs or what!  Soon, the rain will pass and the cooler nights will set everything in order.

Like all transition times, I find the change between seasons a challenge.  This week, the children caught a cold, the long grass and weeds of summer still engulf the garden bed, the abundant tropical fruit and veg have slowed right down, and the temperate vegetables, citrus and other goodies aren't nearly in a glut yet!  We're putting jackets on, taking them off, having a day of dresses and sandals followed by another of boots and jeans.  Eating soup one night, salad the next...

But the blessings of seasonal transition are that we have time to adjust, time to use up what's left of the season leaving, time to make do.  We have to be aware of our surroundings and adapt, flow, accept.

What changes are you embracing right now?

Friday, 13 April 2012

April Showers

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Looking down towards my garden, this photo taken today shows the form April Showers usually take around here. Getting a harvest from any of my fruit trees is always an iffy-proposition. A storm came through and nailed the apricot blossoms a few weeks ago; another one was just in time to get the plums. The flower buds on the peaches and cherries are ready to pop any day now - if this storm blows through quickly enough, maybe they'll make it.

Out in the garden however, as with the daffodils and herbs up close to the house, some things see this storm as welcome precipitation. The garlic and spinach planted last fall are up and putting on new growth; the onion plants set out a couple of weeks ago are starting to green up and settle in. And it's about time to direct-seed peas and lettuces. They might be a bit slow to germinate, but I need to get them into the ground soon in order to get a harvest before the high-desert summer heat gets here in June.

Inside the house, the warm season vegetable plants are up and growing under lights in the spare room. In our small two-bedroom house, this room serves many purposes. A six-foot folding banquet table is just the right size to fit across the four-poster guest double bed. Often used as a sewing table (my sewing machine is to the right of the photo), this time of year it's a planting table - the perfect spot for seeds planted but not up yet, wrapped in plastic to hold in the moisture (the really messy part, filling the pots with soil, is done at a potting table outside - a bin of my seed starting soil mix has been stored in the cellar so it's not frozen; I then bring the filled pots inside to seed and label). The upholstered bench that usually sits at the foot of the bed has been moved into our bedroom. In its place a pair of ladder-back chairs just fit between the bed and my desk.

 Did I mention, it's a very small house? It would be nice to have a dedicated seed-starting area (and I dream of a some-day greenhouse outside). But flexible space and using what you have is a major tenet of sustainable living. A plank, two shop lights, a couple of drapery rods, a light timer, reusable pots, six-packs and foil pans, plus the aforementioned ladder-back chairs, and this summer's garden is already started. Now I'll just sit back and wait on the weather.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Time management for the scatty

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

Productivity ebbs and flows and some days I am superwoman and others, not so much. It doesn't help that I tend to follow my feelings about things, as opposed to my rational thoughts. If I don't feel in the mood to do something, forcing myself do it drains me. If it involves other people, I have no problem sucking it up and getting on with it, but when it comes to the humdrum necessities of my own life and stuff it isn't so easy. Domesticity can be a little too routine, however much I try to be mindful and focused on the task at hand.

I really do envy those who can pick a task and stick with it to completion, who can happily create and follow a rigorous schedule,  but my mind works a little more globally than that. In the past I have tried to fight it, to conform to strict routines and processes and it lead to burnout and joylessness. Instead, this method works well. Everything gets done within an acceptable time frame and my mind gets to hop about a bit and follow its whimsy, something it does not get to exercise in my very routine day job.

This is my _____ a _____ a ______ way of being and doing. I just fill in the first ______ with a verb, the second ______ with a subject and the third ______ with a regular, manageable time frame. Some examples from my current blank a blank a blank list currently read like this:

  • Crochet a row a day (cheery warm chevron blanket will be ready to go in just 120 more days)
  • Sow a crop a week (no empty spaces in any bed, container or paving crack this year!)
  • Wash a load of laundry a day (no more midweek laundry heap blues/running out of nappies trauma)
  • Write a blog post a week
  • Save a pound a day (to put towards a long dreamed of project)
  • Sort ten items to give away a week (decluttering is a lifetime project apparently)

So, in between scheduled activities that are set in stone, I pick any project from my list, whatever suits my mood. I don't resent having to carry them out, I have a few fun things (I can't really call crochet a daily necessity, but it sure is relaxing) that I can pick without guilt - there is balance. I take childlike pleasure from achieving tiny, incremental goals that I can see building into a worthwhile whole, not unlike collecting pennies in a jar.

I am now writing a list like this for our longer term goal of moving to Norfolk. Part of the reason that the self reliant life so appeals to me is the sheer variety of skills I would get to exercise on a daily basis, but self discipline is still an essential. A balance, as always, is the best way forward. I have made my peace with the reality that some things just have to be done there and then; and sometimes I have to just commit; and sometimes I can hop about from task to task.

So, how does your brain work? How do you organize your activities? And if your brain works like mine, all advice will be gratefully received. If your brain does sound a little like my brain, you may want to check out this time management method. If your brain doesn't work like mine, well, you probably don't need any advice on time management anyway : )

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Saving Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

written by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin and Little Green Cheese

Wouldn't it be really cool if you didn't have to buy vegetable seeds ever again?  Well, you can, with a little bit of knowledge and practice.  Seed saving for the crop next season is fun and very cheap, and the beauty of it is that you can begin to adapt plant varieties to become conditioned to your climate.

I have tried seed saving with mixed success, so in this post I will try and explain how I have achieved at least a few successes and what I have learned along the way.  So far I have managed to save quite a few types of vegetables using a few different methods.

The first type of seed that I tried to save was purple podded peas.  It was simple enough to decide which plant was the largest and had the biggest pods. So after I harvested the other plants, I left this one to dry out so that I could collect the seeds.  If you are expecting lots of rain, it is probably best if you pull the plant when it is just going dry and hang it upside down out of the weather.  Once the pods were dry, I took out the seeds and stored them in an airtight glass jar.  I have been successfully growing purple podded peas using this method for 3 years now.  Looking back, it is hard to believe that I only bought a $2.50 packet of 25 seeds in the first place and besides the seeds I have saved, we have had many pea feasts as well!  This drying on the bush method is also good for all types of beans, and I have collected Daikon radish seeds in this manner as well.

For smaller, more delicate seeds, I have let the desired plant flower and set seed.  Just before it begins to dry out, I put a brown paper bag over the seed head and tied it off with a rubber band.  When the seed heads dry the seeds fall into the bag, and all you have to do is label and store them in a dry, cool place for next seasons planting.  I have used this method with lettuce, silverbeet, rainbow chard, onions, leeks, radishes, carrots, parsnips, parsley, dill, and basil.  All of these types of plants usually self pollinate so you will not have too many problems with cross pollination.   These vegetables will usually stay 'true to type', that is, this generation of the plant you harvested seed from will be mostly the same as you will get in the next generation.

Another method of saving seed are by tuber.  For example potatoes, sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke and yacon to name a few.  You harvest the best looking tubers and store them in a hessian bag in a dark, dry place for sowing in the next season.

Garlic is another of my favourites and easy to save for planting in the next season.  Keep a few bulbs from your crop (the larger the better), and when it is time to plant garlic in your part of the world, simply pull apart the bulb and plant single large cloves, pointy end upwards about 20cm appart.  A new bulb will grow around the clove and you will never be without garlic ever again!  Use the smaller inner cloves for cooking as you will end up with very tiny bulbs of garlic at the end of the season.

Sometimes you don't even need seeds to grow another plant.  You can take a cutting and stick it into some moist seed raising mix or some loamy soil and most of the time it will strike roots and continue to grow a clone of the parent plant.  I have successfully propagated tomatoes, all types of mint, eggplants (aubergine), and capsicum (bell peppers) using this method.  You can buy root hormone powder to enhance your success rate, however I find that most cuttings usually strike roots and I have about a 80-90% success rate.

Sweet corn or maize is another easy vegetable to save seeds from.  Let the cob dry out on the plant and then remove the outer husk and then with a twisting motion with your hands around the cob, the seeds usually just fall off.  I make sure that I have a large bowl or tea towel underneath to catch the kernels when I husk corn cobs.  I then store them in a glass jar in a dark place until required.  I have only saved popping corn using this method, but I dare say it would work with any type of corn.  Remember that corn is pollinated by the wind and I read that to keep the strain pure you need at least 500 metres between varieties.  Lets hope your neighbour isn't growing corn at the same time!

Collecting seeds from the cucurbit family may look as easy as scooping the seeds out of a cucumber, pumpkin, squash or zucchini, and letting them dry on paper towel, however there are a few things you must know so that you get true to type seeds for next season.  The cucurbit family readily cross pollinate when nearby, and each variety does not care where the pollen comes from as long it is from its own family.  Each plant also has a male flower and a female flower.  You can identify the female flower because it has a small swelling at the base which when pollinated becomes a fruit.  The flowers only live for one or two days and open at down so that the bees can spread the pollen from male to female.  One book I read recommends that you plant each variety of cucurbit at least 400 metres apart to stop cross pollination, but you can also hand pollinate to control the exchange of pollen.  This is done by protecting the flowers from insects or wind whilst the female flower is receptive.

  • Firstly select male and female flowers the evening before they are due to open.  You can tell this because they will be rigid and have some yellow on the seams of the closed bud.  
  • Close each flower with a rubber band or some masking tape or wrap the entire flower in some pantyhose and tie it at the stem so no insects will be able to get at the flower at first light.
  • In the morning cut the male flower off at the base of its stalk and take off the petals to expose the male part.  Open the flower and rub the male part into the female part.  You could use a few different male flowers from the same species to imitate the way a bee pollinates, but I have found that this was not necessary when I did it..  
  • After the pollen is well coated on the female part, shut or cover the female with pantyhose again until the flower withers.  
  • Make sure you put a tag around the stem of the plant so that as it grows bigger you know that it is a keeper.  You could also write on the skin with a waterproof maker pen as I did.  Tell everyone in your family not to pick it either or you may end up loosing your carefully hand pollinated treasure.  
  • Before harvesting the fruit, make sure it is a big as it can possibly be so that it will ensure that you have very plump seeds.  
  • Store the ripe fruit for a few weeks before opening and collecting the seeds.  Dry and store in a brown paper bag in a dry, cool position.

Tomatoes don't cross pollinate readily and are self pollinating, however to almost guarantee (there are no full guarantees in gardening) a true to type seed keep each row of different varieties at least 3 metres apart.  Allow the fruit to ripen to just beyond eating and then cut them open and squeeze the seeds and pulp into a jar.  Add a little water and label the jar and leave in a warm place for a few days.  A foam will form on top so scoop it off, add more water and pour the mixture through a sieve.  Wash until the seeds are clean.  Spread them on sheets of kitchen towel and let dry.  I then peel them off the towel and put in envelopes for next season.  I have been using the original tigerella seeds I collected in 2007 for two years now and they still germinate quite well.

Of all the seed saving methods, the simplest is what I call the 'volunteer' method.  I usually find that as the weather warms up in spring, I get so many tomato seedlings growing in the beds that I had tomatoes planted in them in the year before.  I just scoop out the seedling with a bit of soil still around the roots and then re-pot so that they grow a bit stronger before transplanting them into a different bed for crop rotation.  It is a bit of a lucky dip, but if you use heirloom seeds each year or collect your own, then there is no reason you can't liberate these volunteers so that they provide you with a bumper harvest.  Last year ever single tomato plant that I grew was a volunteer as the seeds I tried to grow got waterlogged in a downpour and I lost the lot.  I had a massive crop of all different types of tomatoes.

Well that is about all I have achieved in my seed saving, but I am quite proud of the types of plants I have continued to save seeds from especially the cucurbits.  It certainly has saved me a lot of money, and I feel that these plants are beginning to adapt to our dryer climate.  Humans have been saving seeds for thousands of years, so why not give it a go.  I am sure you will reap a bumper harvest from the seeds you collect!

Does anyone have other methods they use to collect and save heirloom seeds?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Environmental Weeding

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

This post is full of contradictions.

I've spent my Easter Saturday holiday getting very scratched and itchy, bitten by ticks and leeches, tired and sore, clearing lantana just so we could get to the worse weed - Madeira vine (Anredera cordifolia).

I had a wonderful morning doing it in a group with friends, really satisfying to see the difference we made in one session (with another one tomorrow).

I wish I didn't have to do it.

One of the best and most satisfying things I have done in my life was a four year riparian restoration project, where we planted a forest. For years I spent most Saturday and some Tuesdays clearing lantana, moth vine, crofton weed and cockspur by hand from several kilometres of creek bank, replanting with sandpaper figs and Brown pine, Quandongs and Bunyas, Celery wood and native Quince, food for parrots and possums and gliders and bush turkeys.

I wish they'd all go and live there and leave my garden alone!

After only a decade, it is a forest. The creek flows through it in dappled shade,  its banks held by roots, its water clear and drinkable, a breeding ground for fish and turtles and yabbies.  We have even seen a platypus there. If it was still degraded, maybe I'd be too busy to deal with Madeira vine right now. If it was a smaller area, maybe we would have noticed the Madeira vine sooner.

Madeira vine is a native of South America, introduced as an ornamental and now a serious environmental weed. Now I'm not a knee jerk weeder. Many weeds are opportunistic plants that occupy a vacant niche caused by disturbance, and disappear as they encounter competition from more permanent species.  Often they are the symptom, not the cause of a degraded ecosystem.  But there are some, and Madeira is amongst them, that don't play nice. Madeira will smother rainforest trees. It will take over whole areas in just a few years. It will spread downstream carried by the water to take over new areas.

And it is impossible to eradicate by hand once it has got a go on.  Every time you disturb the vine, it drops trillions of little bulbils, each of which will take root.  When you try to pull it up, it breaks leaving the roots to regrow and the vine impossible to disentangle from the host tree, dropping its trillions of little bulbils.  It will resprout from a leaf dropped on the ground. And the bulbils will survive up to five years.
So I spent my Easter Saturday clearing lantana, just so we could get at the Madeira vine amongst it. Had a lovely day. Discovered the scale of the infestation is horrible. Believe that generally, when you use poisons, you only make the problem worse.  Wonder how on earth Madeira can be controlled otherwise.

It isn't simple, this simple, green, frugal life.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Thinking about Yarn Thrift

by Amanda of Amanda Brooke

If you have been by my blog recently you would have seen my latest creative achievement...a cardigan I am a little obsessed with.

Originally I tried to make it in a finer DK weight yarn from my yarn stash, but I was getting frustrated with the 'loose' structure and I didn't have enough to double-up the yarn to make a thicker ply. So I went out and bought some new balls of yarn. It wasn't a huge investment as this project uses very little, but it was still new yarn and I felt a bit guilty about buying new yarn when I had so much at home. What made the bit of guilt turn into a little more guilt was when I went out and bought I just had to start another cardigan after enjoying this one so much!

This guilt has got me thinking about a few things. Firstly that perhaps I shouldn't feel guilty at all.

  • I am making something that brings me great joy.
  • It costs less for me to make this garment than most of the knits available in shops today
  • I am able to choose to use 'pure' fibres compared to most knits available in shops made from acrylics
  • I am making something that is practical not unnecessary

The second thing that I have been thinking about is if I can be more thrifty with my current yarn stash or if I could make another cardigan without actually going out and buying more 'new' yarn.

My ideas:

  • Unwind a project I know I'll never finish if I think I can use the yarn for something else
  • I could make the next cardigan stripey? I could tie or use same 'like' yarns together and use up odds and ends for a scrappy and unique look?
  • Source the yarn from local garage sales, op shops (have purchased some from an op shop once before but find it hard to determine the ply/fibre without packaging), clearing sales
  • Advertise locally for a particular yarn I am seeking. Maybe someone has something in their stash they no longer need.
  • Save 'pocket' money to use towards new yarn purchases and not feel I need to start something 'right now'!!! Practice patience in other words.

Do you have any yarn thrift suggestions? How do you curb or justify spending money on new/raw items for your hand made creations?

Amanda x

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Stalwart Kale

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Kale is the new black it seems in the vegetable gardening world. Not just for garnishing the salad bar anymore, kale has found its way into many dishes and can be a stand alone side dish.

I like it for its hardiness in the garden too; in our climate kale survives throughout the winter, and can become perennialized if you have the space to leave it be. From tender leaves for salad, to hardy braising greens, and finally raab in the spring for a broccoli-like treat. A vegetable that produces many meals from one tiny seed is pretty amazing!

Urban gardeners take heart, the beautiful colors and shapes of the various types of kale make it a great decorative plant for fitting in beds amongst non-edibles too.

Easier to grow and more productive than spinach, the recipe possibilities are endless from lasagna florentine to kale chips, you choose.

For a good selection of kale seeds of all shapes and colors my go-to seed company is Wild Garden Seeds. You can select specific types or the Wild Garden Kale mix for a grab bag effect in the garden.

Plant kale - you can't go wrong!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Easter Blessings

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

Last year, I shared some ideas for Alternative Gifts to celebrate Easter.  Today, a friend sent me this link - a timely reminder that top prices and fancy wrappers don't mean the best product...  Especially not the best for the child slaves who work on many cocoa farms.

There are ethical cocoa options readily available now.  Most major brands have something to offer, and I believe almost all organic chocolate is fairly produced.

But don't limit your Easter giving to chocolate eggs and bunnies... Here other some other great (and yummy) ideas from the co-op crew -

Kate's Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
Sadge's Dyed Eggs
Heather's Chocolate Sauce
Julie's Handmade Gifts
Bel's Egg Recipes
Gavin's Pickled Eggs
Throwback's Bread Rolls
Pumpkin Recipes (for those of us celebrating Easter in Autumn)
Sadge's French Bread and Soda Bread

Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Taste of Summer - Chilli and Lemongrass Salsa

by Megan @ The Byron life

We are definitely feeling the coolness of autumn these days and for someone who is a summer girl through and through, I've been trying to hang on to the last rays of summer warmth wherever I can find them - even in my cooking!

Today I share a recipe with you that was used consistently throughout summer in my house, and with the basil still in good health in my garden, the Vietnamese mint and lemongrass in constant supply and a chilli or two still hanging in there, I reckon I can push this summer recipe out for a little bit longer...

This salsa is a spicy Thai-style that works wonderfully with either tofu, chicken or fish on a bed of rice. 


1 x red chilli (seeds removed)
2 x lemongrass stalks
1 x tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
Good handful of Coriander
Good handful of sweet basil leaves
A few Vietnamese Mint leaves (or Thai basil if you have some)
2 x tablespoons soya sauce
Juice of 3 limes (or more if you want it more watery)
1 x teaspoon sugar or honey

Very finely chop the herbs and chilli. Make sure you remove the chilli seeds and the tough outer leaves of the lemon grass. Finely grate the ginger
Combine these with the sugar, soy sauce and lime juice.
Cover and refrigerate for an hour or more.

Serve over cooked tofu or meat on a bed of rice.
You could also use this as a marinade.