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?