Saturday, 30 June 2012

In Praise of Craftsmanship

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

Every year in my community, as part of our winter solstice celebrations, we have a gift giving ritual.  We draw names out of a hat six weeks earlier, and hand make a gift. This year, Garry drew me and made me these bellows for my slow combustion stove.  I can't seem to stand still for photos, but you can see my expression when I was given it. 

It is the most beautiful thing.  The wood is smooth and oiled and smells delicious. The brass nozzle is shiny and perfectly proportioned. The leather is soft and attached with a strip of reinforcing leather and rows of painstakingly positioned studs. The handles are rounded and smooth and shaped to fit perfectly in a grasp, and have little wedges holding them at the right angle.  It has my name etched in the front and a sun etched in the back and "Yule 2012" inside the handles.  Every part is beautiful, but then the whole is something more.  Perfectly proportioned, shaped, textured, designed.

And it works. Magnificently Last night it was wet and cold and we had been out late and busy and had no dry kindling. I managed to light a fire with paper and hardwood and my bellows. No kindling.

Stuff. There is Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff, and there is this, and they are at opposite ends of a continuum. My bellows are made from recycled parts, but that's not the point. They are a thing made with craftsmanship, and I think if all our "stuff" was made with craftsmanship, that's all the revolution we need.

Craftsmanship is where design and execution both peak together. It's where a uniquely human big brain creates a concept for a thing that is both beautiful and functional, or maybe beautiful because it is so perfectly functional. And then where our uniquely human opposable thumbs and long life allow the development of enough precision and dexterity and skill to manifest the design. Craftsmanship is where quality comes together with beauty, where thought and skill and attention meet and the result is something that will last and will be treasured for a generation or more.

So this post is in praise of craftsmanship.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Wonder to be found in Winter

by Amanda of Live Life Simply

Here in Australia we are in our first month of winter. For some parents it is that time of the year when you may be feeling a little reluctant to get outdoors with the kids. I personally prefer the warmer months myself and wrap myself up in the last days of summer hoping to carry some of the sunshine into winter with me. But there is just so much going on in the outdoors that you won't see in the middle of summer and many kids will miss these experiences if we don't provide the opportunity to explore. So pop on the gumboots and some warm waterproof clothing, a scarf, gloves and a warm hat...get into your yard or a nearby park...and lets explore!

Different types of fungus may be growing in the grass, on a tree or in wood mulch as ours is here. They can be really interesting to view at worm level. They are often beautiful but some can be poisonous, so do point out that out to your child if they are old enough to understand.

Moss is beautiful. I love to see moss in our garden. You may need to search for moss. It is often found in damp and shaded places and there are literally thousands of species. Allow your child to feel and explore moss to experience the textures and discuss what they see and feel.


Nuts and seeds are ever present in nature and they can be found at different stages throughout the year. If you find some dry ones in your yard collect a few and place them in a basket for further exploration. We use ours for open ended play and display on our back verandah. This basket of Banskia pods lives in our garden under a rose bush.

During a winter frost ice sometimes forms on our ponds and this can be an exciting discovery for children...even our bigger kids love the discovery of one of the ponds being icy! Ice is a great learning experience for children and you can extend the discovery indoors making ice plates! Cover a plate with a few flowers and leaves, pour over enough water to cover the plants pieces and freeze. Once frozen you can remove the icy disc and pop it on a suitable tray for discovery and play.

Exploring your environment can be a completely free or frugal experience for your children and one that might just provide a lifetime of  self discovery and interest in nature. If our children learn more about the environment and just how unique, often fragile and beautiful it is, then they may care more about looking after it. What do you think?

Please share your ideas. Do you have a favourite place to visit in the cooler months, an outdoor activity or experience that only the winter months provide? What's going on in your park or garden in the winter...what animals are about or hiding away from the cold?

Amanda x

Sunday, 24 June 2012

What A Difference A Year Makes

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

It is late on a Saturday evening, the summer heat is still more than obvious as I sit here knitting and writing with frizzy hair and an overwhelming feeling of heat induced malaise! My fridge is filled with 18 pounds of blueberries and 36 cucumbers. The plan for tomorrow is blueberry jam and bread & butter pickles. I'm knitting something a year ago I would not have had the courage to make. And on my knee, fast asleep is a little girl. My little girl. A year ago next month I met a beautiful girl and boy, who waited far too long for a family, who were separated for more than 4 years, who had more families than I can actually count. A little boy and girl who are now home. As I reflect on the last year, there have been some major challenges - dealing with children who have post-institutional like behaviours, who've been shoved from pillar to post, in less than ideal situations, isn't always easy. But it has been joyful, particularly the last month, when it feels like we've finally cemented.

And as I reflect on this year and this whole crazy rollar coster that is adoption, I've been thinking about the adoption of a simple life, or perhaps more correctly, a different life. It isn't always easy. In my frugal, simple, green journey it has been 2 steps forward one step back. I had a DISASTER with vermicomposting (lets just say there were hundreds, if not thousands of mites), I've had adoption costs spiral so out of control that years of saving and frugal living seemingly went out the window. I've had loss which resulted in moves and pain and a need to really examine the life I want to lead. I've struggle to learn some things that seemingly came so easy for others - casting on took me YEARS, baking is still too methodological and not enough "dramatic flair" (at least without disasterous results) for me. But there have been oh so many successes too. I now have a community garden where we grow our own. I've found a farm which accepted family volunteers, in fact we now "farm" once a fortnight as a family. I've gained the confidence to can and freezer cook and I've learned you can live ethically on very little. I've rid our home of plastic and learned to accept one can raise children without that which 90% of people believe is "normal". I've learned the best weekends are spent hiking, gardening, volunteering and crafting. But more than that, I've learned through the addition of my two children (one still on my knee, one in another room), that dreams do come true; they may take a long time to come to fruition, they may involve sacrifice and doubt and fear and questioning, but if you keep your eye on the prize, you will one day have it in hand.

My children are my greatest blessing. They are also my greatest motivator to keep learning how to be more green, more frugal and more simple. As a full time working mum to two children with special needs, with limited resources and never enough time, it can be so easy to get lost in what needs to be done. But as I look at their faces I find I have a reminder to clear the calendar and just be, to make that green sacrifice, to find joy in the need for frugality. They remind me daily if you keep on going, a year from now you may just be where you always wanted to be, or at least all the ways that matter. I know I am just where I'm supposed to be in this journey - a great place far ahead of where I was last year, but with lots of room to continue journeying ;)! How about you?

Friday, 22 June 2012

Corn 101

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I have some friends that wanted to grow some corn. Now, corn is easy to grow from seed (more about that below), but they were seduced by a couple of little six-packs of plants in the garden department of a local big-box store. They brought them home and carefully set them out in a nice little line at the back of their garden. The stalks grew tall and soon the tassel on top emerged, grew taller, and spread out into graceful fronds. Below, clusters of corn silk were seen at a couple of the junctions of leaf and stalk. My friends watched anxiously as the the growing cob pushed the silk out farther and farther, until at last it withered and turned brown. Time to pick their corn! But when they shucked the fresh ears, they were disappointed to find only a few kernels on otherwise bare cobs. What happened?

Corn "birds and the bees" time: ordinarily, corn is pollinated by the wind. The top tassel forms the pollen. If you rub your hands over a fresh tassel, they'll be covered with a tan dust; if you shake the tassel, you can see that dust falling and blowing in the wind. Down below, each strand of silk links to one kernel on an ear of corn. One speck of the pollen dust has to land on one silk strand to form one kernel. On a single line of plants, only the downwind ears might get pollinated, or depending on which way the wind blows, maybe none of them will completely.

So - how could they have fixed this? One way is to plant corn in a clump, block, or circle instead of a single line. The more chances those silks have to catch a speck of pollen flying around, the more chances your ear of corn will be fully filled in. Ofttimes I'll hand-pollinate my most upwind rows, just to make sure. I'll just rub my hands over a tassel and then dust them off right over the top of the emerging silk below. Or you can shake the tassels into a paper bag, and then pour that over your silks, or just bend the stalks over and shake the tops over the plants nearby.

I'll usually steer clear of corn seeds offered at seed swaps. Even though the corn might have been tasty on the plants those seeds came from, it's no guarantee that the seeds gathered last year will taste the same this year. A lot of sweet corn grown now is from hybrid seed, so those won't necessarily bear true the following year. And since corn is wind-pollinated, it's hard to keep the pollen from sweet, field, or popcorn separated when grown in a small garden space. If you want to save your own corn seeds, you'll have to either separate the varieties, or pick only one open-pollinated (not hybrid) variety to grow.

Sweet corn is best picked at its peak (when a thumbnail-punctured kernel oozes white milk - clear juice, you're a bit early; chunky solid, you've waited too long), cooked and eaten (or canned or frozen) right away. (I haven't tried this cooking method yet - click here - but I am intrigued and think the old guy doing the short video is such a cutie - check it out). Some hybrid varieties will now hold on the plant longer, but still, the sugars in corn turn to starch the longer you wait.

I like to stretch my fresh corn eating time into 6 - 8 weeks. One way to do that is to succession-plant your corn seeds - moving downwind, plant another row each week for a month or two. I find that difficult in my climate. The later planted seeds, germinating in warmer weather, catch up to the earlier ones that started out in colder soil. The latest ones, trying to get started in summer's withering heat, often suffer and don't do as well.

So, I plant all my corn at the optimum planting time for my climate - early to mid-June when the soil has finally warmed up. I dig little ditches and plant the seeds down in the bottom of those, and then run a length of chicken wire over the top - the ditches are deep enough to keep birds from pulling up the new sprouts. I hand-water into those ditches to make sure I get a good, fast germination rate, and once the corn is growing up through the chicken wire I take that off and fill the ditches back in (the soaker hose is already in place at the level the double-row wide-bed ends up being). The corn is now rooted deep enough that the birds can't bother it. Corn puts out extra feeder roots at the base of the stalk, so burying that gives them something to grow into - making them stronger against the wind.

To stretch my harvest time, even though everything is planted at the same time, I use the days-to-maturity information on the corn varieties. The most upwind rows average 65 days, the middle ones 80 - 85, and then the last rows 95 - 100. That's about the limit of my growing season, but it means I'm eating fresh-out-of the-garden corn from early-August until mid-September, and enough to freeze for wintertime soups and muffins - all easily grown from seed.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Vulnerable traditions

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

I haven't had a cup of tea or coffee in two weeks. We ran out of both at the same time and haven't been near a shop where you can buy fairtrade loose leaf tea or ground coffee. Last year we made the move away from tea bags and instant coffees, which helped us to cut our consumption quite dramatically. We have been weaning ourselves off of coffee for a while anyway as the price has risen over the last year, to just a cup a day. And now here I am, decidedly decaffeinated.

At the same time that I am tea-less, the UK is swathed in red, white and blue bunting and traditional tea party's are making a comeback thanks to the Diamond Jubilee, the football and the Olympics. Britain is the second biggest consumer of tea in the world. During world war two, tea imports were made a priority to keep morale high, for fear we might all flake out and give up the good fight without a morning cuppa. Tea  and coffee are not native to the UK (with the exception of this tea plantation in Yorkshire perhaps). It is an unfortunate vestige of our imperial past that one of our most cherished beverages and something so tied up with our national identity must be imported.

I am fully behind the local food movement, but make an exception for those delicious tropical imports - tea, coffee, chocolate and spices. Local food webs build food resilience in the face of fragile global food chains and I appreciate the security, but I am concerned that my local and national food webs would not be able to provide me with satisfying non-alcoholic beverages. I have never met a herbal or fruit tea, commercial or from the garden, that I truly savored. I like the astringent, rich bitterness of tea and coffee and my insipid herbal creations or grain coffees never quite make the cut.

In a last ditch effort to make teatime more resilient, I have sown some Monarda seeds, also known as Bergamot or Bee Balm. This apparently makes an excellent tea and was consumed in place of black tea in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. Whether they will make a more satisfying brew remains to be seen and I hope that there are no catastrophic disruptions to my tea supply before then. I am missing the ritual of a stewing teapot and the comfort of sitting quietly sipping a hot drink as cold rain returns. I am thinking about all of those things that I would miss should the UK not be able to import them - black pepper, vanilla, allspice, sweet potatoes, and making plans to cultivate them or to replace them satisfactorily.

What non local foods would you miss? Have you weaned yourself off of imports completely?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

When Cheese Goes Wrong!

by Gavin Webber from The Greening of Gavin and Little Green Cheese.

I could wax lyrical about all the cheese that I have made that went according to plan, but I don't think I have ever mentioned one that has gone terribly wrong!  This is one of those times.

It started out looking kind of nice and something like this.  There was enough curds for two small and one rather large cheeses.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I totally neglected these cheeses.  They required turning every 4 days and humid conditions.  At the 30 day mark I was to scrape off the mould and it would have looked nice.

Anyway, because of the neglect, this is what they looked like on Monday night!

The large one had mostly had a melt down, but was salvageable of sorts, but the two small ones had totally lost their form and were runny inside.  A bit like blue cheese Camembert I suppose.  As for the taste, well they were fantastic.  A great creamy blue cheese flavour.

This is what I managed to do with them.

I scraped all of the mould off of the large cheese, then wrapped it in cheese wrap and put it into the normal refrigerator to see what happens.  I could use it now, but it would be just good for spreading on crackers like a blue cream cheese.

As for the two small ones, we stored them for a day in the fridge and turned them into a wonderful blue cheese sauce.  Kim cooked up some Penne pasta and lots of cauliflower, broccoli, carrot and corn, mixed it all together with the some rue which she added the cheese to make a blue cheese sauce and baked it in the oven.  The flavour was amazing and the meal was delicious.  Our son Ben went back for seconds as did I!

If this is what is known as a disaster in the cheese world, then I am happy with it!  I love it when we learn from mistakes that can be turned around to something edible and yummy.  It just goes to show that cheese making is not all about recipes and following rules, it can be about serendipitous mistakes as well!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Lemon Cleaner

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

No don't look at the Callistemons.  They are lovely, and we have them in flower now, adding a bit of colour in the kitchen.  Though I'm really a very practical gardener I'm coming more and more to appreciate growing flowers. Natives like callistemons in particular are great attractants for insect eating birds - many insect eaters are also nectar eaters (insects for protein and nectar for sugars).  But I have to admit, I even have jonquils which will start to flower so early in spring that it's really still winter, and a gorgeous scented climbing rose that flowers most of the summer.

There's something about a vase of flowers, especially scented ones, that brightens the whole day. And it's the kind of gift you can give without awkwardness for no reason at all.  

No, look at the vase.  Isn't it shiny? Half a lemon dipped in coarse salt, rubbed over it and rinsed off.  No chemicals and very very little elbow grease. It's my kind of cleaning, and it works on anything metal - stove, sink, laundry tubs, brass, copper, silver.  And right now, we have lemons galore.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Extending Dishwasher Powder

by Amanda of Live Life Simply

This year we added a dishwasher to our kitchen. It wasn't a decision that we made overnight. We thought long and hard about the pro's and cons of having one and in the end there was more positives than negatives. We use it every second day. I like having a dishwasher.

I have been experimenting with dishwasher powders and tablets, trying to come up with a way of reducing the costs by making our own. I tried a few recipes I found on the internet and also tried halving the dose of a tablet and powder, but I wasn't getting consistent results. One of my Facebook readers suggested a recipe which I adapted and it works brilliantly for me. Because it isn't made entirely from scratch and still uses commercially prepared cleaner I have labelled it an 'extender'. It is tripling the use of one bottle of powder cleaner - saving us money!

This is the recipe I am using and love:

1 cup of Ecostore Dishwasher powder
2 cups of bi-carb soda
1/2 cup of salt

Store in a glass jar out of children's reach.
Use 1 to 2 tablespoons per load

Many other recipes use citric acid, borax, essential oils, regular dish washing detergent and a 1/2 cup of vinegar poured into the base of the washer. So far I haven't added any of these to this recipe. Unfortunately homemade recipes don't always work for everybody and little bit persistence and trial and error is required. I'd love to read any recipes you have found work for you!

Amanda x

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Butter Production on the Farmstead

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Often times the only thought of dairy products on people's minds is fluid milk, and with a weight conscious society, butter is frequently overlooked.  I happen to think though, that good fat is what's missing in many people's diets.  Enter the family cow, a real workhorse for the farmstead if you have adequate land and pasture to support a bovine.  Milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream are all delicious and are necessary items for the home kitchen.

If you're reading this blog I am probably preaching to the choir, so I'll just run through my butter making scheme to give you a general idea of what is possible for stocking the home larder with butter.

Jane is raising her calf in addition to providing enough milk for the house.  A purebred Guernsey, she is currently giving about 6 gallons of milk each day.  Two plus for the calf, and four gallons for the house.  As the calf grows larger it will drink more to support its growth and we will take less. 

I milk twice a day, and strain the milk into wide mouth gallon jars with the idea in mind that I will be skimming the cream for butter.  It takes about 24 hours for the cream to rise completely, so I skim the cream from the milk after that time, and when I am going to make butter.  The real method to my madness (and it is madness this time of year) is to make as much butter with early lactation cream as I can and store it for later.  I freeze my butter, but you could also make ghee if you don't want to use electricity to store your butter.  Why early lactation you ask?  Because I am a lazy churner, and during the early lactation period the fat globules are larger and it churns faster.  Of course, Mother Nature designed this to benefit the calf, but anytime I can hop aboard the lazy train and make hand churned butter in 7 - 10 minutes I do it!  So I churn to beat the band in the first three months and about the time I have a good amount of butter stocked up, and the calf is needing more milk, the fat globules are getting smaller and the butter takes longer to come.  Sure, I could buy an electric churn and who would care how long it took to get butter, but also the urgency to stockpile is part of our genetic make-up and I am harvesting sunlight after all.  That means I have to behave in a seasonal manner and stock up on the bounty when there is truly a bounty, not a faux bounty that the store bought mentality has given us.

Fitting butter churning into an already busy farm schedule takes some planning, and is dictated by the amount of milk in the fridge.  I can only store so much milk, and I only have so much time.  It doesn't take any longer to churn two pounds of butter than it does one, so I go with my two gallon churn and churn every other day, rather than use a smaller churn and make butter every day.  That works out the best for me.  It's half the cleanup too, which is where the largest portion of my time is spent when I say I spend and hour and a half a day "milking" the cow.  The actual milking, "pails" in comparison time-wise to the milk handling and processing. 

I skim the cream into squatty wide mouth half gallon jars that I have just for cream.  With hand skimming, it takes about 4 gallons of milk to yield a half gallon of cream, mileage may vary depending on the cow, stage of lactation and your hand skimming skill.  To keep from exposing the milk to bacteria over and over, I wait until a few hours before I am going to churn to skim, and I skim all the jars at the same time.  The cream needs to be at about 60 degrees F to churn fast, much colder it becomes grainy  - much warmer and it is greasy.  I know that sounds funny, but butter has lots of similarities to dough and all its quirks, once you see and feel these subtle differences you'll know what I mean.  After skimming, I leave the milk to reach room temperature or 60 degrees and then I have a little leeway to do other chores or fit in churning while fixing dinner.

After churning the butter needs to be washed and worked thoroughly to get out all the buttermilk, this is very important for longer storage.  Adding salt at this time is a personal preference, I have never found that it makes much difference in the keeping quality.

To figure out how much butter I need for the year, I use my loose 52 week plan I keep in mind when I am canning.  How much butter do you use per week?  One pound, three pounds?  Multiply that figure by 52 and see what you get. We fall somewhere in between that number, and luckily that works out to be an attainable goal for the resident butter maker.  At this point I am getting about a pound a day, so if I can keep up that pace, in four months time and when the sunlight is starting to fade I can have 120 pounds of butter stored up, maybe. 

So there you have it, from 4 gallons of milk, you get 1/2 gallon of cream, which magically turns into a pound of butter and a 1/2 gallon of buttermilk.  Plus you still have almost the 4 gallons of milk that is perfect for cheese of some sort, or clabbering for hens and hogs.  And after all that there is gallons of whey too.  The family cow, the true workhorse of the farmstead :)

Jane Butterfield

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Posted by Bel

Where we live in Australia, it's citrus season.  When I drive along our country roads I see trees laden with bright orange and yellow fruit - in parks, paddocks, beside shops and in backyards.  What a bounty!

Our most successful citrus trees so far, on the farm, are two different varieties of mandarins.  Our children eat lots of mandarins, especially the loose-skin variety - easy to peel and sweet!  We also juice mandarins and make ice-blocks from the juice.  And still there are more on the tree!  Here are some of our favourite recipes...

Mandarin Jam (about 3 jars)
8 mandarins
1kg sugar
3 cups water
Wipe mandarins with a damp cloth, cut them in half horizontally then in half again. Using fingers remove seeds and discard them. Peel away skin and reserve the skins of 4 mandarins. Using a sharp knife cut skin into fine slivers. Place mandarin pulp in food processor, process until pulp is chopped (few seconds). Place pulp in a large pan, add rind, sugar and water – mix well. Mixture should be about 5cm deep in the pan. Stir jam over medium heat until shugar has dissolved, increase heat slightly, boil gently, uncovered without stirring for around 50 mins. Check occasionally during last 10 mins of cooking to make sure mixture isn’t burning on the bottom. Test to see if jam will jell on a cold saucer. Remove scum from surface, pour jam into hot sterilised jars. Seal when cold. Label and store or give as a gift.

Mandarin Muffins (18)
1 cup mandarin pieces, deseeded
1 cup mandarin juice
2 cups wholemeal spelt flour +
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarb soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup rapidura sugar
1 egg, beaten
250ml natural yoghurt
1/2 cup macadamia oil
1/2 cup nuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 190 degrees. Line muffin pans with paper liners. Jucie the mandarins. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, sugar. In another bowl, comine egg, yoghurt, juice, oil. Stir nuts and mandarin pieces through dry ingredients, then add the liquid mixture. Stir only until moistened. Fill lined muffin cups until 2/3 full. Bake for 25 minutes. Ready when spring back to the touch. Freeze well.

Mandarin syrup (Cordial)
1.5kg sugar (I’ve used white or raw)
900ml water
450ml mandarin juice (or orange, grapefruit, lemon etc)
few strips rind
Bring the sugar and water to the boil – when it starts to thicken slightly, add the juice and peel. Simmer 5 minutes. Strain well into a jug. Pour into sterilised bottles. Seal and label. To serve, mix with chilled water or soda water. Nice as a mixer for cocktails. To enchance flavour, add mandarin (or lemon) juice icecubes to drink – YUM.

To Freeze Mandarins:
Peel, de-seed and freeze in a syrup for use in cooking at a later date. Syrup may be useful as liquid measure in some recipes as well.

Remove pith and freeze sections as a cool treat.


Sunday, 10 June 2012

What They Live

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

My Children

:: Couldn't tell you the last time they watched tv, but can tell you what they planted in our community garden

:: Have no clue what the latest gadgets or toys are, but can list books and board games we love to read and play

:: Don't know what a play station, gameboy, or Wii is, but can tell you tale after tale about dolphins

:: Won't sit for hours in front of a screen, but spend hours putting together puzzles

:: Aren't sure of the real names of all the shops we visit, but can tell you the names of all the shop owners and what fairtrade items they sell

:: Haven't yet figured out the politics behind big corporations, but can articulate why we boycott certain shops in very simple terms - "they aren't kind to their workers" is usually suffice.

:: Politely listen to hurried tales of weekend busyness from peers, teachers and friends, but quietly whisper in my ear "Mama lets just be at home and sit under a tree"

:: May not yet be fluent readers, but love that their Mummy is in a bookclub

:: Graciously receive gifts, but find real joy in the making of the thank you card the second the gift is opened.

:: Know we have to watch pennies, but remind me each week to make sure our home has flowers.

:: Don't live in the country, but as of yesterday learned how to gently hold chickens

:: Don't eat meat, but love hanging out with pigs at the city farm!

Friday, 8 June 2012


The ravening hoards are at the gate!
by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
They say the most beautiful garden, the most wonderous landscape, is to be seen in the dead of winter. That's the one you see in your mind's eye, sitting inside by the fire looking over the seed catalogs and other dream books.

But now, here it is, late spring flowing into early summer. Most of the seeds and plants are finally in the dirt; the fruit trees all have leaves and what fruit the capricious whims of weather have allowed to set are starting to swell. Let the battle begin!

Since I'm an organic gardener, most weapons of mass destruction aren't available to me. No scorched earth policies allowed in my yard. Although, I must admit, I'm not above introducing a species-specific disease. Nosema locustae was my last resort against a veritable plague of grasshoppers - used once and forever after their numbers have been reduced to tolerable levels.

Insects, for the most part, I can deal with. Thorough clean-up and composting in the fall can reduce many villians, and my chickens do a pretty good job eliminating others, "on the wing" so to speak. Strong blasts of water are an effective weapon against others, and vigilant patrolling of the grounds allows the removal of many others before their numbers can swell to devastating levels. I also employ decoys and guardians - interspersing herbs and other companion plants within susceptible populations. One last weapon is my mindset. I don't have to have market-perfect specimens in my kitchen. I don't mind a bit of trimming or judicious scrubbing in the preparation of my produce. It just means more goodies for the chickens.

I'm at war with the bigger fauna. And if I'm to taste any of the fruit of my labors, I must resort to fortifying my defenses and trickery (magic, if you will).

Last summer, deer discovered my garden. We wired rebar to the fence posts and added five more feet to the height of the fence. So far, no more deer in the garden. They've moved on to the orchard. The leaves have been stripped from the lower limbs of my fruit trees, but as long as they leave the mid-level limbs for me we're ok.

The robins and bluejays get the fruit on the upper limbs. They can clean-pick the top third of my cherry tree in a day - usually half a week before the cherries are suitable to my taste. Flapping shiny tape tied to the outer branches, and a few mirrors and junk CD's hung within can usually buy me enough time to get some of that mid-level harvest.

Since I prune my grapevine annually and it's supported by the sturdy fence of the dog run, it's of a manageable size to net. I have to wait until the vines have grown out quite a bit though, so they'll hold the netting away from the grape clusters within. I might have to wait a bit longer to get the netting up this year, however. Last week, the vines on the lower branches were stripped back to only stems and fruit clusters. It appears Bambi likes grape leaves too. I laid a mat of hog wire underneath the vine, and it seems to be working. The deer are too afraid of a hoof being snared, and the vines are now putting out plenty of new leaves.

Out in the vegetable garden, it's the sparrows and quail. I wouldn't mind sharing. But they just don't understand the concept. With *them* it's all or nothing. So I do my best to make sure it's nothing. Meh - sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. They've learned that little germinating leaves mean a tasty sprouted seed below - pulling up my corn and peas as soon as they break ground. So I plant those crops in trenches, arching chicken wire over the top. Filling in the trenches as the plants grow gives me the bonus of cooler roots for the peas, thus extending my harvest season, and a better grip by the feeder roots of the corn, so it's better able to withstand our afternoon winds. By the time the plants are big enough to be growing through the wire, they're usually strong and tall enough to survive.

Other seeded crops get wire boxes over them until they're big enough, and some I just plant thicker so the bird depredation provides the necessary thinning. I've saved up some little plastic berry boxes to put over the cucumber seedlings; and use the bigger plastic trays from the now rapidly emptying cellar over the winter squash and zucchini. Once a plant has 3 - 4 leaves, it's ok to uncover it. It was snowing here the last week of May, so the frost-tender plants stay stay warm and protected within their Wall-o-Waters until July. By then, they usually have enough leaves to hide the fruit so damage to those crops is minimal.

Another problem, later in the summer, is one no one else seems to have. When the corn sends up the top tassels - the pollen-bearing ones that fertilize the silks of the ears down below - the sparrows attack! They try to eat those tops, and in doing so their weight is enough to break them. Broken tops don't provide enough pollen, my ears of corn have no kernels. I've found hanging mirrors from a couple of shepherds hooks, so they can swing and turn in the wind, helps chase away those little vermin. After seeing robins hopping about in the strawberry bed, I need to gather up some small rocks and red paint. I'm hoping pecking at rocks now will deter them once the real thing shows up. Can't hurt, anyway.

I'm worried about the beans though. Last summer, they were up and doing well, and then just before they started to flower, I came out and found a forest of bare stalks. The birds had stripped every leaf! I'm thinking I'll have to make a bigger box or rig some kind of arching cover for them - something bird-proof yet also that won't turn into a sail in the wind. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

In praise of feet

Transport is a source of green guilt for me. My other half is a petrolhead and has loved cars and engines and horsepower and other dark arts that I don't fully care to understand since he first uttered the word 'car'. I do not drive as of yet and I am no fan of being a passenger. Still, I find myself being chauffeured about quite a lot. I also don't cycle. Cycling in cities is stressful; cycling in this city is also dangerous judging from some of the many bike/car mash-ups I have witnessed and I am not particularly confident on two wheels. Buses and trains are my preferred choice for longer journeys and the journey to work, until this week - I have started to walk to and from work.

I leave the house at 5.45am, it is light and cool at this time of year. The birds are awake and actually noticeable without the torrent of cars that will fill the roads just a few hours later. I walk hard for an hour until I reach the bridge that takes me off island; and then take a slow mosey up the hill that leads to my workplace. By 7am I have completed the 4.5 mile journey, with half an hour to spare before my shift begins. The journey to work is more pleasant than the journey back home. The afternoons are becoming hot and sticky, the roads are busy and I am tired. But the journey is still invigorating after a day of constantly reacting to telephones and emails.The journey is a time to slow my brain down and be mindful of my surroundings.

I admit to having every advantage. Firstly, my workplace has showering and changing facilities for its several thousand employees. There are bicycle lock ups and onsite security if cycling is your thing. You can buy a hot cooked breakfast should you need a reward for your strenuous journey. Everything is geared up to be cyclist and walker friendly, which cannot be said for the majority of workplaces. I can afford to take the journey slowly, I live in a fairly safe city and I am healthy, if not physically fit.

Feet should be our primary mode of transport, as the transport of the masses for thousands of years. If you wanted to go somewhere, you walked, however far and however inclement the weather. There are ancient footpaths crisscrossing the whole of Britain, some remain as leisure routes, some are now sadly obscured by dual carriageways or housing estates. Feet are now something to be encased in ridiculously impractical shoes as you pay for them to be carried with the rest of you to you destination. I have been looked at with bemusement by colleagues who pay to drive to work and then pay for gym memberships that they resent using. The cyclists don't understand why I would want to take my time getting to work when I can get there in half an hour on two wheels.

Being a whole 5'10" from my brain, where I seem to do most of my living, I have ignored my feet for the most part. I appreciate them once again and have begun to take better care of them. They are frugal (I save almost an hours wages each day by not paying for public transport) and they are a means to better physical and mental health. They are now itching to go other places, different routes, longer distances; to wear comfy boots and to be soaked and rubbed at the end of the day, and treated with the care they deserve - and to be lived in a little more.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Frugal Food Like The Old Days

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

In today's society of instant gratification, seldom do the people take the time to make food for themselves. Here is my argument. When I worked in South Yarra a few years ago, the first thing some of my co-workers did before they got to work was go to a local Cafe and buy a coffee (in a disposable cup) and a muffin for breakfast. Then, at morning tea the regulars headed for the snack trolley for more cakes or a meat pie. Then at 1 pm it was off to lunch. 

All of this prepared food must cost them a small fortune. Here is the maths as I see it. Coffee + Muffin = A$6.00, Meat pie + Cake or doughnuts = A$5.50, and lunch at a local Cafe = A$12 to 20. So this lifestyle, if continued each working day, costs between $117 to $157 a week, and oh, those calories! I am not saying that some of the people I used to work with are a bunch of fatties, I am simply stating that from my point of view, it looked like normal practice and probably is the norm in most city office environments. For all I knew they could have exercised every day to keep fit, so the high calorie intake may have been cancelled out. The point that I am making is that the money they could save could have been used for better things.

For example, compare this weekly spend to the cost of buying a few basic groceries, like cereal, milk, coffee, bread, sandwich fillings etc, all of which will last for a week with only one person consuming. This would save them at least $100 a week (I am being generous). Better still, if you still crave for that muffin in the morning, buy a box of muffin mix for $3 and make 6 muffins to a box, and put them in the freezer for breakfast. Oh, so very simple. Think of what one could do with all of these savings. One could pay down some of their credit card debt, or make an extra mortgage payment, or if renting one could save for a house deposit (if so inclined).

I regularly go that little bit further, by baking bread regularly, and Kim baked cakes, scones and biscuits for lunch boxes. I take my lunch to work at least four times a week (a man has to have a treat once in a while), whilst Ben has never bought his lunch from the school canteen when he was at school. It all adds up when you have a family of five mouths to feed, which includes the dogs!  Now that I think of it, we eat very cost effectively and eat healthy food most of the time. I suppose with such a large vegetable patch, it is hard not to do!

Kim has watched the entire series of "Little House on the Prairie" that she bought off of eBay, and she loves the characters and the simple life it portrays. Now, because of the show, and all that baking Caroline does, Kim has a baking bee in her bonnet. She is a great baking cook. A while back, she made a Streusal cake (tastes great) and a batch of scones. The recipes were taken from an old 1992 book, first published in 1963, called "The Dairy Book of Home Cooking" that she bought from the milk man when she lived in the UK (remember when we had milkmen?). To show how simple it is to make scones, here is the recipe;

225g Self raising flour
half tsp salt
50g Butter or Margarine
150ml Milk

Sift flour and salt into a bowl, rub butter into flour until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add all of milk, and mix to a soft, but not sticky dough with a knife (?). Turn on to a lightly floured work surface. Knead quickly until smooth. Roll out to about 1 cm thick. Then cut into 7 or 8 rounds with a 6.5cm biscuit cutter (cookie cutter for Americans reading). Transfer to a greased baking tray. Bake at 230 degrees C (450F) for 7-10 minutes or until well risen and golden. Cool on a wire cooling rack. Then spread with home made jam and scoff the lot (I added this bit in).

The scones were so yummy, that my daughter Megan and I had to have one each for morning tea, smothered in Gav's strawberry jam. I believe that it is the simple foods in life that are, and taste the best, and that simple, sustainable living is much more gratifying than the instant type I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

Who is up for a scone and jam?

Saturday, 2 June 2012

A Busy Person's Sourdough

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

There seems to be an epidemic of busy going on at the moment.  I am insanely busy. I'm not complaining - it is a huge privilege to have interesting, worthwhile work that is fairly local in my rural home.  But it has been a challenge lately keeping all the balls in the air.

Thankfully I'm over the nadir and transmissions should start to return to normal fairly soon.  But this morning it struck me that, even in this crazy time, baking our own bread has made the cut - something worth doing even when time is the most precious commodity going. Which is a bit intriguing. Bread baking has the image of being something only hardcore homesteaders do routinely. Yet, while my poor garden is sadly neglected (happily still yielding well, but due to stamina not care), while the housework is undone and the pile of washing grows, the bread gets baked.

It's a happy nexus of two things: baking sourdough is a whole heap easier and less time consuming than you might think, and baking sourdough is a whole heap more rewarding and delicious than any other option.

I have a nice little routine going.  Two or three nights a week I take the sourdough culture out of the fridge and feed it.  It takes just a minute or so to mix one and a half cups of baker's flour with one and a half cups of water, mix in the sourdough culture, put half back in the fridge for next time and leave half in a bowl on the kitchen bench, covered with a clean tea towel, for the night.

I use unbleached white baker's flour for this, because my experience has been that if I feed the sourdough bugs a nice high gluten flour at this point, I can add almost anything else I like and it works.  In the morning I have a frothy bowl full of active starter, and I can get creative.

Sometimes I add a porridge of cooked grains - barley, millet, quinoa, oat groats. Sometimes I add dried fruit and nuts. Sometimes I add raw rolled oats, bran and linseeds (flax seeds).  Sometimes I add rye flour, caraway seeds and a bit of cocoa powder.  Sometimes I add grated pumpkin and pepitas.  Sometimes I add olives and thyme. Sometimes I add a beaten egg and some melted butter.  Sometimes a sweetener like treacle.

Always a good teaspoon of salt and enough more baker's flour to make a kneadable dough.  Sometimes it turns out memorably wonderful and becomes a favourite.  But always it seems to turn out edible.

There's a feel to kneading bread, and it's hard to describe.  I knead only for a couple of minutes, never the ten minutes in some of the old recipes.  Just until the dough is smooth and elastic and has lost its stickiness.  I  have learned to regard the kneading as my regular "Nana arms" avoidance exercise.

I leave the dough on the kitchen bench, in an oiled bowl covered with the tea towel again, and rush off into my day.  By the time I arrive home, even on these cold winter days, the dough has always doubled in size.  This is the only weak spot in the routine.  I need to pick the days when I will be home before about 6 pm, because the bread needs to be "punched down", or very briefly kneaded again, then put into it's baking tin with it's top slashed to allow rising, and left to rise again for an hour or so before baking.  And on these really busy days I turn into a pumpkin around 8 pm.

But if I get the dough doing it's second rise by 6 pm, and I can keep it a bit warm, by 7 pm it is ready to bake. Sometimes I bake flatbreads, rolling it out rather than putting it in a tin after the punching down. Sometimes I put a tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to create a bit of steam.  Sometimes I bake in the mellow oven of the slow combustion stove.  Sometimes I put the loaf in a cold gas oven set to medium. If it has sweetener or dried fruit in it I need to take care to keep the temperature low enough not to burn it.  Usually it takes around 40 minutes for a smallish loaf to bake until the crust is golden and it sounds hollow.

Then the challenge is to hold back from bedtime snacks of warm, crusty, just out of the oven bread. And I'm getting better at that.