Showing posts with label Sustainability. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sustainability. Show all posts

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Clothing and textiles in the simple living home (Part 2)

Using thrift shops, freecycle and clothing swaps as your main sources for family clothing and home textiles, you can provide the bulk of your family’s needs at little to no cost. The keys to efficiently and successfully using these resources are as follows:

1. Know what you need by keeping an updated list in your wallet or purse at all times. This eliminates unnecessary purchases and prevents you from buying new at the last minute. If you are prepared in advance for coming seasonal weather changes (or growth spurts in children), you’ll have plenty of time to source what will be needed BEFORE you actually need it.

2. Aim for minimalist wardrobes for everyone in the family. Look for basic key pieces that can be worn together (mix and match) to bring the greatest flexibility and the most “bang for your buck”. 

3. Regularly go through closets, drawers and stored clothes (whether off season or the next size for children to grow into) to take stock of wardrobe gaps that need filling. I suggest doing this task monthly or at minimum, seasonally. This helps you to maintain a truly accurate needs list so you can “shop” efficiently in second hand stores or at clothing swaps.

4. Keep your “inventory” well organized at home. If you have several children and can hand clothes down to younger siblings, be vigilant about boxing clothes up and labeling WELL as to what is inside (gender, size and season). Don’t keep too much as this can become a “clutter” liability rather than a clothing asset.

5. Purge regularly. Needs and lifestyles change and children grow. Donate or sell anything no longer useful or serviceable to free up space for incoming (needed) garments.

Supply and demand plays into the household economy as it relates to clothes and textiles. Some items are as rare as “hen’s teeth” (pants for 10 year old boys, for example as most boys wear through their pants with their rough and tumble play). This fact means that boys’ pants might need to be purchased new. Look to seasonal sales and plan ahead so that you never pay full retail price.

Only consider paying full price for quality items that you know you can get many years of use out of (an adult winter coat that will be worn for many years or a child’s coat that can be handed down to younger siblings). Never pay full price for something that is in great supply second hand in your area (such as a child’s t-shirt).

Special occasion garments are often costly budget breakers, but they are very easily sourced second hand. Most of them have been worn once and often, not at all. If you have an upcoming special occasion to attend, be sure to source your clothing early to avoid last minute costly new purchases. Note that dress shoes are also widely available second hand, often with barely a scuff (usually having been worn only once).

Additionally, sheets, towels, curtains, blankets, quilts and aprons are all available through the sources listed above and many thrift stores offer garbage bags full of worn towels selling for just a few dollars. These can be cut up for cleaning clothes or shop rags and eliminate the need for buying expensive and/or disposable cleaning cloths and shop towels. You can also cut up your own worn clothing and linens to be used in this manner for free (the ultimate in recycling). 

Using these three resources wisely and efficiently, home managers can fill nearly every family and household textile need for a fraction of the cost of new, with very little effort. Happy shopping, simple living style!

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Ethical clothing

by Rose @ greening the rose

When I was a child in the 1960s most of Australia's clothing was made in Australia. As of my 60th birthday Australia produces about 5 percent of its clothing. As a kid my wardrobe consisted of  a school uniform, a couple of outfits for play, a good outfit for Sundays and not a whole lot else; my parents wardrobes were similarly lean. Warm clothes were hand knitted, a good dress or skirt was made by hand, clothing was passed down from one child to the next, my father's one suit lasted many years.

In 2015 many of us have more clothing than ever, more to wear, more to hang in already overstuffed wardrobes and even more to wash. Since we outsourced the making of our clothing and the sourcing of our textiles we are buying more at a cheaper price, using more resources and paying less for clothing than we ever had throughout human history.

This increased consumption is a global phenomenon. We seem to have gone from a four season a year clothing cycle to changes that are monthly, even weekly. Does anyone pay full price anymore? Sales appear to be ubiquitous, 50 percent or more off at the beginning of a season is not uncommon and 70 percent or more occurs often enough to be noticeable.

Shoes for $10, a pair of jeans for $15, a dress for $14 it's as if the 1970s never went away. Or is it?

Why is the price of clothing so cheap?

Outsourcing of the developed world's textile industry has placed a huge labour intensive industry in the developing world where many of the world's poorest workers live. More than 80 percent of these workers are women and children, who are paid less than a living wage, who work in unsafe often-times  unsanitary conditions, who are in some cases deprived of human rights.

In many cases western clothing houses contract to the lowest bidding group who may perform the work themselves or further sub-contract it to another group (at a lower price).This "devolves" responsibility (ahem) from the clothing house as the supply chain becomes less transparent and more fractured so is harder to trace.

The demand of western tastes prepared to pay limited dollars encourages the growth of questionable practices and techniques.

Perhaps the distressed jeans you are wearing caused silicosis in the person who made them? Garment workers can contract silicosis when small particles of silica dust from the sand used to distress jeans embed themselves within the lungs. This causes shortness of breath, coughing, weakness and weight loss. It's incurable and can be fatal.

The waste from textiles amounts to millions of tons of environmental damage per year in the country of making, in the country of consumption the problem is dumping into landfill of cheap non-biodegradable clothing.

All is not lost, there are ways to have an ethical wardrobe:
  • Know what you need, make a list and buy from it.
  • Consider used clothing that offers so many benefits, it's cheap(er), it recycles and you can upcycle it, it doesn't require the use of precious resources.
  • Buy from accredited clothing companies (see below)*.
  • Choose the best quality you can afford so that your garments last as long as possible.
  • Make your own clothing. Yes, quality fabric and yarn aren't cheap, but the garment you make will be customised to your size, style, taste and requirements. I have handknitted jumpers (sweaters) that are decades old.
  • Buy/source from the most ecologically ethical brands you can.
Ethical Clothing Australia is an independent body which studies the supply chain of Australian clothing companies to determine if they should be accredited for ethical production. You can check on your favourite brands to see if they have received accreditation.

Oxfam is asking questions of some of our well known clothing stores, especially those who still won't sign industry-endorsed workers' rights agreements. Check out more from Oxfam here.

Similar organisations include

Valuable reading and viewing on this issue includes

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

How To Start Living Sustainably

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

Of late, I have been doing a lot of reflection about why I chose to live more sustainably way back in September 2006.  Not because I want to stop living this lifestyle, but because I have been writing a series of eBooks and needed to remember exactly how and why it started the way it did.

As my personal blog is now quite large, with over 1100 posts, new readers to the blog are finding it difficult to navigate particular subjects.  This is what gave me the idea for the subject of my very first eBook, titled "The Greening of Gavin - My First Year of Living Sustainably".

The research was easy enough.  I read through the first year of my blog, and then wrote the main guts of the book.  However, one thing eluded me, and that was the root cause and the real reason that my green epiphany had such a great impact.  It took me about three days of soul searching to figure out why, and another three days two write the chapter about it, which only ended up being a couple of pages long.  It was very hard work.  That said, I cracked it wide open.

I believe that the impact was so great because leading up to that day of awakening, I was a rampant consumer, stuck in the rat race, getting deeper and deeper into debt, with no end in sight.  I was damaging my self financially, my future, and the future of my planet.  I would buy the next latest and greatest electronic consumer item without real reasons or any thought of the consequences financially and environmentally.

I just had to have it, mainly because I had been programmed that way.  Years of living in the consumer culture had altered the way I behaved, acted, and consumed. Advertising was my master and I was its slave.  All that consumption was playing in the back of my mind, and I had this niggly little feed that something was wrong, but I didn't quite know what.  

I had also become lazy.  Whereby I used to make things like my own beer, a little of my own food, and took pride in construction projects around the home, I had slackened off and just paid for things to be done, because I was too lazy to do it myself.   Due to this consumerism, I knew it would be a very long time before my mortgage on my home would ever be paid off.  I felt very, very lost.

Then I had, what I call my green epiphany, which was a pivotal moment in my life.  I remember it as a true awakening, like I had been shaken from a dream state and slapped silly with a big wet fish.  However, it was only because I was in such an abnormal and sorry state before the documentary, that it was the reason that the experience did have such a transformational effect upon me.  Otherwise, I believe that I would have walked out of the cinema, thought a little, shook off the feeling that I should do something about this climate thingy, and promptly put it in the too hard basket.  Just like everyone else who saw it that day did!

Well, the rest is history.  I did choose to act, and act decisively, albeit not quite in the order that I would green my lifestyle if I had to do it over again.  Hindsight is always 20/20, but when I think about it, I probably wouldn't change a thing.  All of my actions have had a purpose, whether it was a large statement, or made our family feel good that we were actually doing something worthy of our time and effort.

So why the title of this post?  Well, I suppose that I am trying to say is that all it takes is one simple action.  Then another, and another.  It doesn't matter what triggers the initial action, all that does matter is that you start.

All of these actions are small, yet powerful steps towards a larger goal of voluntary simplicity.  You are the one that chooses to live simply, without it being forced upon you.  Kind of like beating the rush that many of us see on the horizon.   

So consuming less or consume ethically, and you find that you will live a more happier life a result. It is certainly the only way I know how to start living sustainably!

How did you start your journey towards voluntary simplicity?  What was your awakening moment?

Friday, 30 March 2012

Waste Management

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I received an interesting piece of junk mail the other day. It was a mass mailing postcard from the local trash and recycling pick-up company, obviously sent out to addresses not currently using their services. It quoted about $20 a month for weekly garbage and bi-weekly recycling service. What I found interesting was that they then compared their rate to, by their accounting, the much more expensive option of hauling your own garbage and recycling to the landfill.

Now I live in a semi-rural part of a mid-sized town in the western United States. It's the part of the country where many people drive, or at least own, a pick-up truck. So hauling our own trash to the dump is a viable option for us. The local landfill recently doubled their rates, going from $5 to $10 for an average truck load. The dump is clear over on the other side of town from us, maybe 7 - 8 miles away. The truck gets an average of 20 miles to the gallon of gas. So, with gas going up all the time, add in maybe $2.50 - $3 for the gas to get there and back. So, a full-load trip to the dump costs us less than $15.

They came up with $15 per trip as their "haul your own" figure - that's reasonably accurate, I'd say. But what I found interesting was that they then used twice-a-month trips (therefore $30 per month, at least) as their comparison to show that using their service would cost less. Do most folks really generate that much trash?

We make dump (and recycling) runs about once every three months. We take a daily newspaper, but some of that gets used as wood stove fire-starter (our only heat source) half the year, at least. Instead of a garbage disposal we have a chicken bucket and a big set of compost bins built from salvaged pallets. I buy my milk in cardboard cartons instead of plastic. Whenever I have space in my freezer, I refill the cartons with water and freeze them - a handy ice source for camping or cooling a batch of homemade beer. When I buy juice, it's usually frozen concentrate instead of plastic jugs. We reuse bail-closure bottles for beer, hard cider, and kombucha; reuse glass canning jars and freezer bags for garden produce. I cook from scratch and do a lot of my own baking. I buy pantry items in bulk (those I don't grow and dehydrate myself) and then use 5-gallon tins and gallon glass jars for storage. For other shopping, I'm mindful of excess packaging as well.

I have a recycling area set up under the back side of my kitchen counter (that also holds light bulbs and other electrical items, empty bottles awaiting reuse or a trip out to the crates in the shed, and paper grocery bags I'll reuse until they are falling apart - and then I use them to hold newspaper recycling). I also reuse paper grocery bags to separate plastics, glass, and metals, folding down the top edges so they'll last longer. Those are emptied into plastic tubs on a shelf out by the garage maybe once a month. We have a local business that pays for metals for recycling, so we have a 55-gallon drum for aluminum and another smaller can for copper or steel - maybe a once-a-year trip, if even that, to empty those.

Out by the garage, we have three 44-gallon rubber trash barrels, and then a few 2- and a couple of 5-gallon metal cans for stove ashes (we have an old non-catalytic wood stove, enabling us to burn pallets and scrap wood, so our ashes have quite a few nails in them). To be honest, we'll fill up those cans before we do the trash barrels. We've never (knock on wood) had any problems with our garbage barrels and bears or raccoons. I do try to keep smelly trash to a minimum - rinsing, bagging, or wrapping everything - and there are good lock-down lids on the barrels (a necessity because of our infamous Washoe Zephyr). And, to be honest once again, I live in a desert climate - stuff is more likely to dry out than rot.

My husband has a couple of buddies he'll call, too, before making a dump run, and they return the favor. So a truck load is most often a combination from three homes, each taking a turn paying the landfill entrance fee. So for our trash, garbage, and recycling, we'd pay $5 a month without his buddies; averaging more like $2 per month on the dump-buddy three-month system. I think we'll stick with the "haul your own" option.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Childhood Joy Rediscovered (Again)

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
As a child, I couldn't wait to learn to ride a bicycle. First on the grassy hill in front of the house, then out on our little suburban street - my dad jogging along behind, holding onto the seat, exhorting me to "keep pedaling", until suddenly I left him behind. I kept pedaling, and the world was mine!

I had wheels, and my boundaries grew - from my street, to my block, to the neighborhood defined by the "busy" streets. The bikes grew too, from that first little bike soon passed down to a younger sister, to a bigger one, with fat tires, coaster brakes, and a basket. It was great! As an avid reader, I was overjoyed once allowed to ride to the library on my own - I could get more books whenever I wanted! I taught our little dog to ride in the basket, and the two of us had our faces in the wind every day. Whoopee! I had wheels!

By high school, I had traded up once again - getting a Schwinn 10-speed, and a job. My boundaries had expanded too. Even the steepest hills were no barrier now, and I was old enough to be allowed out after dark. I could now ride for miles, and did. Oh, the fun I had! When I went away to college, that bike did too - providing plenty of exercise along with my new-found freedom.

Once out of school, my commutes got longer (and I was making more money). I got my first car, and the bike gathered dust in the garage. About 20 years ago, I sold that old 10-speed to buy a mountain bike. It wasn't suitable for in-town riding, but made for some fun weekends. As I got older, it got harder to ride the hills - it wasn't as much fun anymore. Eventually that old mountain bike was pretty much just gathering dust in the garage. I still liked being out, and on the move, though. I live in a gorgeous part of the country, with plenty of trails and paths nearby. Hiking and walking was more my recreational speed; with the car for work and errands about town.

I believe in living as "green" a lifestyle as possible. In order to put some effort behind my beliefs, I joined a local organization advocating for pedestrian and bicycle safety. I went to a lot of public meetings, met with a lot of elected officials, and kept speaking out that transportation need not mean only cars. Over the years, and through our collective efforts, we now have a pretty good start on a bicycle-friendly community (and a nascent bus system, too).

And this summer, I figured it was finally time for me to stop merely advocating and "walk the talk" - put my muscles where my mouth is, so to speak. I'm old enough to need my comfort, though. The old mountain bike out in the garage never did work very well other than recreational. I saved up my money, and went shopping for something I could ride about town. I'm amazed at the advances technology has made in bicycling. I was thinking a little-old-lady cruiser-type bicycle, but eventually decided a hybrid would better suit my needs and riding style.

And it does - it's perfect! It has the suspension (oh, what a concept!) in seat and handlebars, and upright sitting and wide, padded seat of a cruiser. But then it has the gearing and brakes like my old mountain bike (definitely a plus, as my house sits up on a hillside). I never liked strapping my purse on the back rack, or wearing a backpack, so I love having a bike with a front basket once again (and now they make detachable baskets - I just lift it off and use it as a shopping basket in the store, and then carry it in the house to store my helmet, water bottle, and lock). And a bell - I had to have a bell! - I'm a town rider now, I wanted a bell :-) I've also found that an Ipod - turned down very low, so I can still hear traffic noises - makes riding so much more enjoyable (I always have the radio on in the car - why not enjoy my music while out on the bike?)

I've rediscovered the simple joy of having the wind in my face once again. I use the bike for running errands about town, even bundling up to keep riding as the weather has gotten colder. I've noticed I can get a little farther up the hill to my house, before having to get off and walk, each time I go out. Before, I'd started having problems with my knees, feeling like I was kneeling on gravel. The doctor said I needed to strengthen the tendon that runs under my kneecap. When I get out on the bike regularly, I've found I can once again kneel without pain. And need I even mention the savings in gas money, or the benefit to the environment? That I'm losing weight and getting in shape? All that aside, it's just plain fun!

Friday, 30 September 2011


by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
In a foot-wide bed along one side of my garden grows a line of sturdy plants, six to seven feet tall.

The leaves and stalks look a bit like sunflowers, an impression reinforced in fall when the plants are topped with sparse clumps of bright yellow daisy-like flowers.

They're pretty enough to be just a decorative garden backdrop. They grow tall enough, even in a small space, to make an excellent privacy screen, and grow thick enough to make a decent wind-break for the garden beyond. They don't set seed, so no worry about volunteer seedlings turning into weeds all over the place the next year. Plus they're drought- and cold-tolerant perennials, and easily divided. I like self-sustaining plants.

The leaves will withstand the first light frosts, but die when the winter temperatures drop to a hard freeze. The stalks wither, but if left in place will harden and stand firm throughout the winter, continuing to break the wind, catching and holding the snow.

All in all, by mere appearance and hardiness these plants have earned their place in my garden. But they're not just pretty. These plants are sunchokes, sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes, and they produce food too. Easily dug and pulled, the plants produce tasty tubers at the base. The thin-skinned tubers look a bit like ginger root, and don't need to be peeled. Raw, they have a mildly sweet and nutty flavor, a texture a bit like jicama. Boiled or steamed, they can serve as a starchy substitute for potatoes or turnips, and cook in much less time (bonus - their sugars break down into fructose instead of glucose during digestion, thus making them a good starch for diabetics). I like them sliced across in thick slices and tossed into stir-frys at the last minute as a substitute for water chestnuts, or chopped and toasted and sprinkled atop curries instead of almonds.

The tubers will keep in a bag in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, and maybe a month in a cool cellar or pantry. But it's even easier to just leave them out in the garden all winter. Freezing weather doesn't bother the tubers. I just pull up plants as needed. I cut the withered stalks down to a few feet after they freeze, to tidy up the garden, then use the shortened stalks to see where to harvest, throughout the winter and spring, and on into early summer.

You might be able to find the tubers in your local supermarket, or they're available through many seed and plant catalogs. Though maybe expensive, you only have to buy them once. There are always a few tubers left in the ground to start growing again in the spring, so plant them in their own permanent bed. Perhaps in richer soil or milder climates they could become invasive, but I haven't had any problems in my dry sandy soils. I'm happy to have found another reliable, hardy, self-sustaining food crop.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Life Changes

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

Since I wrote my last post here, I've become a mother to two beautiful children, a daughter and a son. Life has felt anything but simple, green and frugal. In fact, I'd go so far as to say like has been somewhat complicated, definitely the opposite of green and more expensive than it has ever been [aka I am leaking money]. One piece of advice has carried me through, from a seasoned parent who I really respect: focus on survival until it feels like you can do more.

This whole experience has taught me so much about understanding people who feel the simple, frugal or green life is beyond them. I've heard friends, co-workers and people in the media say that they feel overwhelmed at the thought of making their own soap, recycling, composting or cooking from scratch. While I've long held the belief we should all start slowly, being a mother for just shy of three weeks has really given me a level of compassion and understanding about why changes can feel so challenging.

Almost three weeks in, we are doing well. I can't say I'm cooking every single day, I certainly can't say my laundry situation isn't scary. But in terms of small successes:

- I am using green soap and green cleaning products, even if I didn't make them myself
- I am composting, even if the bucket is in a sorry state and needs to be dealt with
- I am ensuring we get three meals a day, even if they are simple or from a favourite independent store instead of more complex {what I would do for a roast!!!}
- I can see where I want us to be (a more simple, green and frugal life defining parenting choices) and I know slowly we will get there...

One of my favourite quotes is this: "All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” Anatole France.

So if you are struggling with life changes, just know part of embracing the single, frugal and green life is to be simple with yourself and your needs. Don't be harder on yourself than you would be with others. Understand sometimes focusing on survival is the right thing to do.

I feel hope our new life is emerging and I'm sure as long as we are together it will be a grand one. I hope wherever you are in your life you see hope to.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Our common goal - self reliance

By Rhondajean @ Down to Earth

Around our neck of the woods a typical day goes something like this. I rise at 4 and write until the dogs want to go outside, I let them out, feed them and the cat, then go into the garden to let the chickens out to free range for the day. I count them all, check they have water, and encourage them to have a wonderful egg-filled day. "I will still love you if you don't give me an egg, but don't push your luck too far," I say.

Inside again, I finish off my writing and when Hanno gets up, I make breakfast. After we eat, I clean up the kitchen, put bread on to rise, make the bed, sweep the floor and get ready for whatever the day may hold. Hanno will work in the yard most of the day. He has his projects and the garden and he'll talk to the chooks, the dogs and our neighbours, and generally keep the place neat, tidy and in good working order. I will write, check the forum, and in between times, I'll do bits of housework, sewing, mending, knitting, baking or making soap or cleansers. It depends on what is needed in our home as to what I actually do.

Lunch comes along and usually it's fresh bread with salad from the garden or boiled eggs with soft golden yolks. After lunch we sometimes have a little nap and then I write again, or sew, or make household goods. Hanno will sometimes read the online newspaper or check out some of his German or political sites. It's an easy way to spend each day - our days are filled with our necessities but the pace is relaxed and gentle. Friends and family phone or call in, we have breaks when we want them. This is living how it should be - we are not stressed and we are productive. One thing is for sure, it is never boring. It just gets better with each passing day, we are more settled, more grateful and closer to each other because of the time spent working towards our common goal - self reliance.

We are fortunate in that we have no debt. Hanno is on an old age pension and I still get paid for my writing. We are both pleased that I am able to earn that money from home. Of course, no simple life can be truly simple without making the decision to dramatically reduce the amount of money spent. The less we spend, the less we have to work and the more time we have for real living. There is an incredible sense of freedom that comes with not having to work. I still do my volunteering, that feeds my soul and I'd be a lessor person without it. The pay off for me is in feeling useful, being able to use my brain in interesting and innovative ways and meeting the wonderful people who walk through the door. I am enriched by the work I do there and I can say with certainty that it is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. I can do that work because I'm not tied down to a job.

Even though there are many things to be done in each day, the practical day to day things are not the whole story of simplicity. Practicality and the work that goes with it is just one piece of the puzzle. You have to look inside yourself for the other pieces. Ask yourself if you're really living the life that will make you happy and fulfilled. Everyone's idea of happiness is different but if you're not even close to what you hoped for yourself and your family, you should start thinking about changes. 

Most of us have made a real effort of get off the consumerism roller coaster, if you don't you're just playing at this. Spending is the one true gauge of authenticity. If you're still spending on non-essentials while you're paying off debt, you're not going to reach those simple life goals anytime soon.

You have to slow down too. This was the hardest thing for me. I was a chronic multi-tasker, I always had plenty of things on the go at the one time and often I felt overworked and unappreciated. Now that I've slowed myself, I can be busy without feeling like I'll never get it all done. I take my time with each part of what I'm doing and I concentrate on my job at hand and not on what will come later. It's made all the difference and eliminated those feelings of being rushed all the time.

One thing is for sure, simplifying will always give you more work to do, it is never the other way around. But this is a different kind of work. It's work that will fulfil you and make your life richer because what you're doing is building self-reliance into your life. Instead of relying on others to make what you need, instead of going to the store to buy your food, you will be able to do a lot of that yourself. That builds self-confidence which makes you believe you're capable of doing more and more.

You will never be in the ideal place to start living simply. Often the move towards it comes when things are really chaotic in your life, you might have lost your job, had a baby, become ill or maybe you're just fed up with life on the roller coaster. You don't have to move to another location, everyone can start simplifying right where they are now. All it requires is for you to stop spending, to re-evaluate your life and to clarify what it is you want from life. The only thing that will be handed to you on a silver platter will be the one size fits all notion that you can spend your way to success and that being is debt is "normal". Everything else requires thought and planning. I'm here to tell you it's confronting, difficult and challenging. But if you can change, if you decide to focus on quality of life rather than the quantity of stuff you own, if you can break out of the mould that mainstream society has encased you in, then you'll have the chance to live a life like no other. Is the time right for you?

Friday, 12 August 2011

Is change coming?

By Rhonda Jean @ Down to Earth

I think we're are gaining ground.  There has been a shift away from the purchased conveniences of modern living, women and men are beginning to see the light and more and more homemakers are returning to older and non-commercial ways of doing the house work and cooking.  It does my heart good to see how many younger women and men are expressing an interest in home cooking, knitting, mending, repairing and reusing, as well as making green cleaners and soaps. There is a move towards traditional home arts.  Here in Australia, fabric, yarn and craft stores are reporting record sales, and cooking has become popular again!

These traditional ways of housekeeping and home maintenance, passed down over the years by our grandparents, were replaced by convenience foods, cheap clothing and appliances, and when they started to disappear, most of us were too busy to notice.  The global economic crisis came along to show us that when we are given convenience on a plate it is at the expense of other significant things.  Many were surprised when they realised they could do a whole lot more in the home than they thought they could, for less money, while producing better quality, and they actually enjoyed doing it.

I believe it's a question of dependence versus independence.  Convenience encourages dependence.  If we buy food already cooked or half cooked, we forget our traditional foods and how to cook them.  If we always buy our clothes, we forget how to make them.  If we buy our knitwear, we never learn to knit.  There was a time when we never thought about having our nails "done", when we cut our own hair, fixed cars and lawn mowers, or we relied on friends and neighbours to help us do it, then we returned the favour by helping them do something we had the skill to do.  Now convenience and the cheapness of food, clothes and appliances makes us dependent on shops instead of each other.  We work to earn the money to pay for these things instead of learning how to do make them or repair them ourselves.

In my ideal world, mothers and fathers would teach their children how to live an authentic life in the modern world.  They'd make sure their children had the life skills they need to look after themselves, they would teach through example and they would be the people they want their children to become.  But we don't live in an ideal world, all we have is this one and while it is far from ideal, there are some thing we can all do to make our own family healthy, practical and competent.  From a young age, teach your children how to cook simple food, mend little things like toys, knit, recycle, plant seeds, harvest water, and how to care for what is theirs.  Giving them the responsibility of caring for a pet will teach them about nutrition, time management, gentleness and unconditional love.  Many parents think that teaching a child how to read before they go to school is a major achievement, but they need much more than that.  They need those practical life skills, those things they will enjoy learning while they're still young.  They will grow up confident and self reliant if you teach them these things; show them they are important part of the family and rely on them to help with the family work.  Giving too much to children only teaches them how to take.

I don't expect everyone to take up their knitting needles, start dressmaking or learn how to make a traditional meal from scratch, but I do see a move towards some of those things.  And the good thing is that many people realise that making and doing for oneself is a positive and life affirming thing; they enjoy it.  It has been a long time coming but the move is on and who know where it will lead us.  Now, more and more people are realising that we can change the way we live, and because of that almost anything is possible.  I think real change might be just around the corner. Do you?

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Water water everywhere?

Aurora at Island Dreaming

April showers bring May flowers, or so the poem goes. Except that it hasn't rained here for the past two and a half weeks. This, coupled with temperatures that (as our national newspapers love to keep reminding us) currently rival the Mediterranean, has come to a head over the holiday weekend in the form of long traffic queues heading towards the coast as the whole country tries to make good use of the fine weather.

The garden isn't so keen on what is shaping up to be the hottest April on record. The container garden in our yard is particularly thirsty and our veg plot is requiring a few visits a week just to water. The clayey soil, where it has been left unmulched and uncultivated, has turned to rock hard lumps that throw dust into the air whenever the wind blows. After a wet winter, I didn't expect that I would be dealing with a lack of water so soon.

Our blue planet is remarkably dry, in human terms. According to these UN statistics, just 2.5 % of all of the water resources on earth are freshwater - and of this 2.5%, 70% is locked up in ice and snow cover. We are exploiting the freshwater resources we do have at an alarming rate, extracting groundwater at far greater pace than it is being replenished. At the same time we are degrading the quality of those meager resources we do have in ever more creative ways - salination, acidification and industrial and agricultural effluent are some of the problems that your region may or may not be facing.

Next month we will be installing a couple of water butts on our plot. Hopefully it will rain and they will have a chance to fill up over the coming months. If we have a very dry summer, we can but hope that a hose pipe ban will not be enforced; and that the water butts will have a chance to fill over winter ready for next years growing season. We will be collecting and spreading mulch with abandon over the next few weeks and using the cooler evenings to wander to our plot and water, all in the hope of reducing evaporation and runoff. We might even find a way to capture and filter some of the grey water generated by our household and use it in the garden. These are all tangible actions we can take to conserve the water resources we have and ensure the garden survives a potentially scorching summer.

Much harder to contemplate is the embodied or 'virtual water', in effect the water footprint, of all of the products that we consume. Agriculture takes the biggest share of our annual global freshwater budget at about 70%, followed by industrial production. The domestic consumption of almost 7 billion people accounts for just 8% of global usage. These are issues that clearly cannot be solved by individual action; but reducing unsustainable levels of personal consumption and waste will obviously contribute to the solution.

Back in my part of the UK, this summer could be a complete washout, a repeat of the flooding and holiday-ruining rain storms of recent years. Or it could be very hot and very dry. It might mercifully be somewhere in between. It will certainly be a summer of our household being more mindful of how we use yet another resource that we have otherwise been taking for granted.

Are you water conscious? What issues are being faced in your region? What steps do you take to conserve water?

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Celebrate the Future

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Practically all holidays celebrate the past, commemorating historical events or people. However, there is one holiday that looks to the future. Arbor Day, originating here in the United States in 1872, celebrates the planting of trees. While your local date may vary, according to climate zones and planting seasons, here in the U.S. most Arbor Day celebrations are held the last Friday in April.

Planting a tree, that will take decades to mature, is an ultimate act of faith in the future. You probably enjoy trees around your home or neighborhood planted by folks long gone. You might want to repay that favor by planting a tree to be enjoyed by those that will follow you.

Since you want your tree to endure to bless the lives of future generations, a bit of research is necessary before planting. Check with area tree services, nurseries, universities, or local publications to find out what trees do well in your climate, and also the best time to plant. Then, look at your planting site. What varieties will do best in the available sunlight, both as a young sapling and later at full size? Is there sufficient room for the expected mature size? While a young tree may look cute three feet from your front door, the pruning necessary to keep your front walk passable in later years may be detrimental to the health and looks of the tree - perhaps even leading to an untimely demise.

What kind of tree do you want? If you're planting a fruit tree, research the necessary hours of winter chill required for blossoms to form, plus its low temperature hardiness, then compare to your climate. Some fruit and nut trees require a different-variety pollinator. Unless you have room for two trees or there's a different one in the yard next door, you might have to search out a self-pollinating variety.

Think about underground: have your local utilities locate any lines or pipes before starting to dig. You don't want to put a water-sucking tree with invasive roots over the pipe leading to your septic tank - that's just asking for expensive plumbing problems. Plan ahead too - tree roots generally spread as far as the mature extent of the canopy above. The best street trees are ones with root systems that won't lift concrete sidewalks into an impassable jumble; that can withstand the weight of traffic and possible road-use chemicals in your area.

Look up, too. There's nothing so sad as a line of trees butchered because they grew too high for their site and the power company trimmed them. Investigate utility easements, too. There might not be an electrical line or television cable there now, but they might have the right to put one in later. And your tree will pay the price.

Landscaping can add thousands to the value of a home. Trees not only add to the beauty of a home, properly sited they can help reduce heating and cooling costs. Windbreak trees can cut cold winter winds; deciduous trees can provide cooling shade in the summer and warming sunlight in the winter.

When you've done your research, and selected a variety, it's time to purchase your young tree. Check for damage to the bark or broken branches. Although I sometimes transplant suckers or volunteer seedlings from my own property, please, do NOT go out to dig up a young tree in the wild. The damage to the entire forest ecosystem goes way beyond just the displaced dirt. Besides, the tree most certainly will not survive, or if it does its growth can be set back for years. Trees sold by nurseries have undergone a season or two of root pruning that concentrates the roots into a ball. If obtained when dormant, bare-root trees can be a less-expensive option than paying to transport a lot of dirt too.

When digging a planting hole, go wide instead of deep. Tree roots spread out, so you want a hole three times the width but only as deep as the root ball. Remove any wire, plastic or burlap wrapping completely. Pick your tree up by the root ball, not the trunk. When you have your tree placed in the hole, check for correct depth using the handle of your shovel across the top edges of the hole, tipping the tree over to add or remove dirt as necessary. If you look at the base of a tree, it will flare out a bit where it transitions from trunk to roots. That little bit of flare needs to be just at ground level. If you see a tree that goes straight up from the ground, it's been planted too deep. Backfill with half the dirt and use water, not stomping, to get soil into any air pockets before adding the rest of the dirt.

If you absolutely need to stake the tree, align two stakes, one on either side of the tree, perpendicular to the prevailing winds, placed outside the planting hole. Use stretchy tie material around the trunk and back to the stake. Remove the stakes the following year, sooner if possible. If you're adding mulch, keep it at least a couple of inches away from the trunk. In temperate climates, young trees need an inch of water weekly, which you'll have to provide if Mother Nature doesn't. Tree roots extend as far as the branches above do, called the dripline. So you'll need to move or add to your irrigation as the tree grows to deliver water further from the trunk. With care taken now, your tree should be a blessing for decades to come.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


by Amy of My Suburban Homestead 

Well, dear readers, I haven't been as active in writing about my homesteading experiences as I have been in the past. This is largely due to the fact that I am pregnant, and most of the time struggling to keep my eyes open and nausea at bay! Most often I've been curled up under the blankets catching up on movies I've wanted to see over the last few years but have been too preoccupied with other projects.

In preparation for the new addition to our family, I've sold off all of my extra chickens. I had been selling their fertile hatching eggs on e-bay (which is a great way to make some extra money from home, by the way if you have a rooster) because I would like to focus on just our family needs. I find that when I have too much going on and try to make a little extra money for myself, the effort that I spend in doing so ultimately means that I have less time to spend on things that would save me money in the long run, such as making my own laundry detergent or growing food or even building a fire in the wood stove. Like they say, time is a precious commodity.

On my personal blog, I wrote recently about our first experience in raising our own pig for meat and lard. If this is something you've been considering, you might find this an interesting read, and if you are a veteran in raising pigs, I'd love to hear your feedback on your experience.

I've also got three runner ducklings in the brooder, and am hoping that they will help me keep the slugs and snails under better control this year.

I'm finishing up my master gardener course, and have learned a lot. I hope to apply all that I have learned this year and will keep you updated on the progress and new varieties that I am attempting to grow. I have a lot of vegetables growing in the house already, and it should be quite the productive season! 

Monday, 24 January 2011

Houseplants for Clean Air

by Chiot's Run

Many of us spend a lot of time indoors, particularly this time of year here in the northern climates. We can't open windows and the air inside can get a little stale. You've probably hear that the air in our homes can often be more polluted than the air outside, due to cleaning products, chemicals released into the air by furniture and building materials. Formaldehyde is found in just about all indoor areas. It is used in just about everything now, especially pressed wood and particle board but also comes from things like: carpet, clothing, fire retardants, etc. Other sources come from our heating systems and cigarette smoke. This formaldehyde can cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, as well as headaches, dermatitis and allergy problems. It is also linked to a rare type of lung cancer. The scary thing is that formaldehyde is only one type of indoor pollution we also have to worry about: benzene, xylene and toluene and I'm sure more we don't know about yet.
My Indoor Garden
Of course you could get a pricey air cleaner that uses electric and that's most likely made out of plastic, which ironically will probably offgas chemicals into your home while it cleans the air. Houseplants do a much better job and do it for free (after purchase of course, but you can get them free often if you know someone that has a few, most are quite easy to propagate). One potted plant will clean roughly a 100 square foot space in the average home or office. I live in a 1000 sq foot home and I have a plant in each room, 15 in the living room, 7 in the kitchen/dining and about 15 in the basement to help clean the air down there.
Houseplants and Clean Air
Certain plants work better than other things at cleaning the air in our homes. Different plants help clean different chemicals out of the air, so it's beneficial to have a variety of plants. You can even have plants that are edible so you get food as they clean the air.
Houseplant and Clean Air
Here's a list of a few plants and the chemicals they each clean out of the air.

Boston fern, golden pothos, philodendron, and spider plants reduce levels of formaldehyde.

Areca palm, moth orchid, and the dwarf date palm can remove xylene and toluene.

Gerbera daisy, chrysanthemum, spider plants and peace lily can remove benzene.

Other beneficial houseplants include: bamboo palm, Chinese evergreen, English ivy, indoor dracaena species and the snake plant (also known as mother-in-law's tongue).
Houseplants and Clean Air
I have always had houseplants (probably because I grew up in a jungle of houseplants). The pothos in the first photo was on the stage at our wedding, and it's been cleaning the air in our various homes for the past 13 years. I also have a dwarf citrus, a few other pothos that I've propagated from this mother plant, baby tears, mother-in-law's tongue, dumb cane, a few ivy plants, aloe, a few succulents, and a collection of herbs including: lemon thyme, seasoning celery, parsley, rosemary, lemongrass, lemon geranium, lemon verbena, and a few more. We have houseplants not just to clean the air, they also provide some much needed green in the our home during the dark snowy winters in Ohio which is good for the soul!

Do you have houseplants? Are they for cleaning the air or for enjoyment?

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

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Brown Paper Packages Tied up with String

by Chiot's Run

I'm always game to save money in any way I can. Gift wrapping can be very expensive, even if you buy it on sale after the holidays, and buying something that you're just going to recycle and throw away seems a little crazy. One inexpensive way to wrap gifts is by using brown kraft paper. You can buy it in big rolls very inexpensively at home improvement stores, but I find that if I save the stuff that comes in packaging throughout the year, I never have to buy any, in fact I always have a pretty good sized stash on hand. Not to mention I'm able to reuse something before it goes into the garden (we always compost kraft paper products instead of recycling).

Brown Paper Packages Tied up with String

The paper is usually crumpled, so I crumple it even more to give it some texture (and to make it look intentional). I love using kraft paper because it goes with just about any kind of decor and it's not gender, age or holiday specific. You can adorn any way you like if you want to add some pizazz. I have a box of saved ribbon in the basement that I occasionally use, especially if wrapping a birthday gift. I find that garden twine works well and looks lovely, especially if you include a little natural element like a pine cone or pine sprig. All those little scraps of yarn work as well, you could also use scraps of fabric, paper or just decorate with markers.

Brown Paper Packages Tied up with String

You can also save those brown paper bags that you get throughout the year to use as wrapping. I have a stash of all shapes and sizes from very tiny to fairly large. These are fabulous because they're quick and easy! I usually punch holes in the top and use a twig or a piece of ribbon to close it. I think a stick of peppermint would nice as well or maybe a pencil or something useful.

Brown Paper Packages Tied up with String

This is a great frugal way to save on wrapping expenses and to keep extra things from being produced and purchased simply to throw away or recycle. I find that when I gift a gift wrapped this way, people tend to stop and take notice. Perhaps it will make them consider doing the same the next time they have to wrap a gift.

What kind of wrapping do you use in your household? Any great ideas for saving money in this area or for creative wrapping options?

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

Friday, 26 November 2010

Teaching What Matters Most

By Bel

from Spiral Garden

One of my passions is helping other families connect with nature. I love writing about getting kids into the garden, and walking the talk by enjoying our garden, nature walks, photography, camping and other nature-inspired activities, with my children.

There are some very good resources for children which cover topics such as permaculture, organic gardening, peak oil, solar energy, etc.

Here’s some of the info I found:

The ABC Book of Gardening for Kids is a good one. About $16 or in most library systems.

You must read The Lorax by Dr Seuss!!

Backyard Science (books and TV - again ABC) is great too.

Depends on their age, but Jackie French is good - her Chook Book and self-sufficiency books are pretty easy reads. My 10 year old likes ‘my’ Jackie French books.

The Department of Environment and Heritage have free resources about environmental issues.

Living Earth Games, which include permaculture principles and are heaps of co-operative fun. We own and enjoy both Gaia’s Garden board game and the Living Landscapes cards.

There are environmental and social justice topics in mainstream school resources like those available from RIC where you can browse every page of every book. Also, find ideas here.

My kids love those permie DVDs like ‘Eat your Garden’ and the ‘Gardening Australia - Permaculture‘ DVD with Josh building his backyard permaculture setup from scratch. They’re not aimed at kids, but they’re very simple and entertaining.

For solar energy and peak oil, you may look for educational material from CSIRO, petroleum companies, the ‘green’ department of your local energy companies (gas and electricity).
Docos and TV shows like Catalyst aren’t aimed at kids but aren’t too difficult for them to understand either. I prefer not to dumb-down the facts and science behind this issue. It is amazing to hear their positive solutions and alternatives and their ideas about what would be more difficult in a time where oil is very expensive and how we would cope etc. They really are positive about relocalisation and alternative energy sources, permaculture, community gardens and co-opping and all sorts of other things which come up from Peak Oil discussions.

Carbon calculators are fun and informative. Try this site for links to a few different ones (some are inaccurate for rural folk etc due to penalties for not using public transport for example).

We watched The Power of Cummunity- How Cuba Survived Peak Oil DVD 2006, then a friend came back from Cuba with amazing photos and stories to tell of their thriving communities… We talked about similarities and differences, and how such a crisis would affect our community, our nation.

We took time to read about The Great Depression in Australia, for if there is an oil crisis (or other event) we could experience such a time again. It’s so far removed from our very wealthy, urban and ‘instant’ society that we enjoyed studying what occurred during this period and why.

Where are you? Maybe there are farms nearby you can visit to learn about food production. Community gardens are great too. Some larger Permaculture farms have open days.

More Links:

Solar Energy Projects
Sustainability Education
Permaculture Stories for Children

… and so it goes. An alternative curriculum, just a click away! Enjoy!

Friday, 7 May 2010

Sustainable Luxuries

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

Originally uploaded by FoundryParkInn

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Fertilizer for the Home Garden

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
We make a big compost pile every Fall - cleaning out beneath our slat-floored chicken coop and mixing in all the fallen leaves and spent plants from the garden. Turned a time or two through the winter, by Spring I have an abundance of organic fertilizer to scratch into each garden bed as I prepare it for planting, and to spread around the perennial plants as they start waking up. Besides replacing needed plant nutrients used up each season, the compost also helps retain water in my sandy high-desert soil.

When first starting a garden, the main thing you'll want to know is if your soil is more acid or alkaline - the soil pH. Testing kits are available from gardening supply catalogs, or by professional services. Your local Co-operative Extension Office might also offer that service, or can tell you who does so locally. pH is measured on a scale from 1 to 14 - 7 is neutral, above 7 is alkaline, and below 7 is acidic. Most vegetables like pH from 6 - 7, just slightly acidic.

If your soil is too acidic (below 6), a sprinkling of lime, ground limestone, will raise the pH. For alkaline soils (above 7), adding extra organic matter such as acidic peat moss will help bring the pH down. Compost, by its very nature continues to break down incrementally years after it's first applied. By adding compost each year, the ongoing process has transformed my initially highly-alkaline desert soil to a constant neutral pH.

When you look at every fertilizer label, there will be three numbers listed, ie. 30-10-10. They refer to the percentage of three basic plant nutrients, and are always in the same order: N-P-K, Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium (potash). In the example above, the remaining 50% would be inert or inactive ingredients.

Compost alone can be enough for a garden, but I like adding a bit extra to make up for anything missing, plus ensure a quick, healthy harvest in my short-season climate. General-purpose chemical fertilizers, besides being composed of possibly harmful synthetic chemicals, are also, for the most part, designed to be water-soluble. Mix them up, spray them on, (buy more) and reapply regularly. They also need lots of water - something in rather short supply here - to make them break down into a form readily available to plants. I prefer making my own general-purpose fertilizer mix from items that normally occur in nature, and then break down slowly and naturally over time.

Each Spring, I stir up a bucket of my dry fertilizer mix, adding a light sprinkling over each garden bed along with an inch of compost. That's mixed into the top 6 inches, then leveled for planting. My fertilizer mix is equal parts bloodmeal (high in nitrogen), bonemeal (phosphorus - you can also use ground phosphate rock if that is readily available to you), and greensand (potassium, plus trace minerals). Trace minerals in the soil are also necessary for optimum garden growth. Zinc, copper, molybdenum, boron, and manganese, though required in very small amounts, are vital for plant well-being, and greensand, coming from sea-bottom deposits, is a good source. Some folks use wood ash as a source of potassium. The potassium in wood ashes is in a very soluble form. Potash used to be made by leaching water through ashes, then drying to concentrate the potassium. If you want to use wood ash for a potassium source, composting the ashes first can help to keep the potassium available for your plants.

Some individual plants also get specialized attention. The blueberries need very acidic soil, so they get a light application of granular sulfur each Spring, and a mulch of pine needles and coffee grounds. What I call my "fruiting" plants - the tomatoes, peppers, okra, and eggplants - benefit from crushed eggshells (calcium) and a bit of Epsom Salts (magnesium) added to each planting hole. My bulb beds - the daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips; onions, garlic, and shallots - like an extra sprinkle of bonemeal. Feed your soil now and it will, in turn, feed you well the rest of the year.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Consider Kefir

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I like yogurt. I use it in smoothies, atop fruit and granola with honey, and interchangeably with buttermilk in baking and some recipes. I know how to make it at home, but it's such a fussy process I never do. Keeping it at a constant warm temperature in a house heated with a wood stove (when I light a fire at all) is difficult. Then, you're supposed to start with fresh "from the store" culture every so often anyway. Despite trying to avoid purchasing plastic packaging, if I want yogurt, I buy it from the store.

But a few weeks ago, by coincidence, I found something better. I've been writing about making vinegar and dealing with the mother-of-vinegar culture on my own blog. I got a comment from a reader saying it sounded a lot like making kombucha tea. That same day, I'd just read a magazine article about kombucha too. I was intrigued, and posted a request for a kombucha starter on my local Freecycle network. I received two offers, and made plans to meet with one. When I got there, she also offered to give me some water kefir grains, and some milk kefir grains. Oh boy, more stuff to experiment with! I'm still deciding about the kombucha and water kefir. They take longer to culture, and both need added sugar to work. I don't like the idea of increasing my intake of sugar, so the jury is still out on those.

But I'm already hooked on the milk kefir. I've tasted the flavored stuff you can buy in the store, and I do like it. But it's sooooo expensive, and comes packaged in little individual plastic bottles. So, not something I'm gonna buy. But making your own is so easy - much easier than making yogurt, once you have some kefir grains.

Kefir grains aren't grain. They're a symbiotic combination of good bacterias and yeasts - more of the same kind of probiotics that make yogurt good for you. They've been used for centuries (Marco Polo mentions kefir in his journals) to ferment milk to form a beneficial cultured product. Kefir grains look like little bits of cauliflower, with a squishy texture somewhat like tapioca.

You can't make them from scratch, but once you have some you can keep using them indefinitely. They can be ordered via the Internet, but try what I did and just ask around. Over time, the grains increase in number, making it easy to pass some on to a friend. Added to milk, the culture forms in your home's ambient temperature. They work great for me in a jar on my kitchen counter.

It's also easy to make as much or as little as I need. Each morning, I put the grains into a soap-and-water clean jar and add milk right out of the refrigerator (I use non-fat milk. I've also read that it will work with non-dairy milks, such as soy or nut, but haven't tried it), and put a lid on it. A couple of times during the day, if I think about it, I'll give the jar a little swirl, but try not to get any of the culture on the metal lid. By evening, the culture has thickened to the consistency of store-bought buttermilk, and the grains have risen to the top.

It could be used then, but right now I've been letting it continue to culture overnight (in the summertime, when it's hotter in the house, 8-12 hours will probably be long enough). By the next morning, a bit of whey might start to separate from the culture at the bottom. It's now more the consistency of paint - thick enough to support a plastic straw. You're supposed to avoid contact with metal for the best taste, so I stir up the kefir with a clean plastic straw or spoon, and then strain out the grains.

I have a nylon tea strainer, designed to fit inside a teapot, that just fits inside the opening on a wide-mouth canning band. It takes only a few minutes of stirring and pouring into the strainer to end up with the fresh kefir in a quart jar, the kefir grains in the strainer. Some sources have said to rinse the grains each time, others say it's not necessary. If I were on city water that contained chlorine or fluoride I might not rinse mine. But we're on a well with good water so I rinse the grains a bit in the strainer under cool running water. Dumped into a clean jar, I either start the process again for the next day, or the grains will keep, covered with a bit of milk or cream and stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator (the woman I got them from had kept them for a couple of months that way, and they revived, no problem).

I like refrigerating the kefir then, later mixing it 50/50 with any kind of juice, making a flavored beverage just like the ones you buy in the little plastic bottles, for an afternoon snack. In the blender with frozen fruit, it makes a great smoothie. I've used it as a substitute for buttermilk in baking recipes, and drizzled it plain over granola and fruit. Plain, it's a bit sweeter than yogurt - not quite as tangy. Left to culture as long as I let it, the texture can feel a bit "ropey" in your mouth to just drink right out of the jar. It's not as solid as yogurt, and won't form much "cheese" if left to drain. But it's sooooo easy, and good - I'm definitely happy with this discovery.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Power and Importance of Our Lives

by Melinda Briana Epler, One Green Generation

There is a rift in the sustainable and simple living movement. There are those who believe the most important thing we can do is change the way we live our lives at home. Because it makes our families healthier, our budgets easier, and our lives happier. And then there are those who believe that each of those little changes in our lives do not matter, because the danger of climate change and peak oil and poverty and greed are so huge, that if we don't change things on a massive scale, we won't make it as a people.

I used to believe the latter. I used to believe that while it was important to me to eat healthier and support local farmers, what was important for humanity and the planet were only the big, political - and societal - changes. So I worked for many, many years to learn how to change the world on a massive scale.

But you know what? In a way, I ended back where I started.

I tried art, design, narrative film, and documentary film. I searched for how to tell people the world need saving. And after 20 years, I realized that telling is important, sure. But the real thing that incites change in the world is doing. Doing publicly, sure, but doing - it is the action that makes the difference.

Nobody wants to be told what to do, or what to think. But everyone loves to watch successes happen. Everyone loves to watch people become healthier and happier. Everyone wants to believe that they can live better on less.

Our individual and family changes are powerful. The stories we tell about them are also powerful. And together, our doing and our telling about it is one of the best tools we can use to incite real, solid, movement-based change in the world!

Just in the last 2 years since I began blogging about my own personal changes, I have seen the number of simple, green, and sustainable living blogs increase exponentially - have you? It's amazing, isn't it?

At the same time, I've seen more businesses cater to local and green living. I've seen more organizations working to rebuild greenbelts and replant forests. The amount of socially and environmentally responsible investments has grown considerably. It is now ok to talk about shopping in thrift stores and recycling everything imaginable, and not using plastic, and turning down the heat, and so on and so on. The gardens, oh the gardens - how many more people are planting vegetable gardens!

Societal Change Is Happening. Because we individually are changing our lifestyles, and we are telling others and showing others about it. People see our passion, our health improvements, our enjoyment in going back to the basics. And that passion is catching!

Now this does not give us an excuse not to vote, not to join community efforts to create change. These things are necessary, too - and we should all take part in the stake of our community, national, and planetary laws and goals. But what we do every day at home is equally important. As we learn and grow and redefine how we live our lives at home, we are spreading a movement of change in how the world defines normal.

So don't stop, and don't let yourself get down when it's tougher. Keep moving forward, and changing the world - one day at a time.