It’s not easy being green

photo-1432817083480-c4471a7f2438I am now (eventually) the proud owner of a second-hand dishwasher (one of the electrically powered ones, not one of my children bribed into helping around the house).

I expect many of you are thinking ‘how can anyone live without a dishwasher?’. Others are probably struck by the irony of a person who espouses all things green succumbing to the lure of a household gadget.

But this decision has been decades on the making. There have been endless ‘shall we? shan’t we?’ discussions and many a near purchase, always stopped just in time by a big dose of Green Guilt.

Research shows that people who are trying to live a green lifestyle have the hardest time ever making consumer decisions – researching carefully into environmental impacts, energy ratings, Corporate Social Responsibility statements and the like. It’s possible for products to be discontinued in the time it takes a dedicated green shopper to reach a decision on their product of choice.

But is green consumerism all it’s cracked up to be? Yes, I can re-mortgage the house to buy bamboo bed linen instead of nasty non-organic cotton and I can pay over the odds for a plastic ruler made from an old plastic cup – but is it really saving the planet or just saving my conscience?

The real problem with green consumerism is that it’s an oxymoron. Buying stuff – even squeaky green stuff – is, more often than not, just plain bad for the environment. That stuff has to be culled from somewhere, manufactured to ‘add value’, imported  and transported; packaged and stored.

Green consumerism gives us a way to avoid any real sacrifice while feeling we’re doing our bit for Planet Earth. It creates a ‘halo effect’ of righteousness when in truth all we’ve done is drive the growth that is at the heart of our ecological crisis in the first place.

To really live lightly on the earth, we need to cut through the greenwash of false claims of ecological benefits and get back to buying just what we need, not what we want.

Which is how I ended up with my second-hand dishwasher. After years of failing to channel my inner Martha Stewart, I finally had to accept that domestic goddess-hood is not my forte.

And do you know what? After all that swithering and guilt, I’ve now got a more organised kitchen, lower ‘leccy bills and time to do lots more growing and gardening and making – all the things that really make for a green life.

I should have succumbed years ago.

 

10 and counting…

logoA number of years ago (90 months ago, to be precise) I signed up for a new initiative called 100 months. Like Flash Gordon in slo-mo, the claim was that we only had 100 months to save the world.

Now at first it was exciting and a bit different – it felt (like all of these things feel) like this might actually be The One.

The One that makes the difference. The One that does what it says on the tin. That One.

But as time has gone by it has lapsed, as everything from 10:10 to all those 20:20 vision things have lapsed, into a few memes from Collective Evolution and a bit of slacktivism on the side – sign this petition (it will only take a second), donate to this cause (go on, it’s just the price of your usual Grande, decaf, extra-hot soy Americano with extra foam), do anything and everything, without disrupting your life too much.

Another white knight face-plants the dust.

But that’s okay – I refuse to get downhearted (though there are days when the state of the world reported in mainstream media gets me down – those are the days I dose myself up on Positive News). If these last seven and a half years have taught me anything, it’s been to stop delegating responsibility for creating a better world to the ‘Theys’ (you know them, ‘They’ are the ones who should do something about potholes/world peace/Mrs Miggins’ cat/the economy…).

Because government and big business aren’t going to save the world – at this stage of their evolution, that isn’t what they are here for.

Celebrity endorsements won’t save the world either, however much charities (and we) dote on them and give our hard-earned donations for a quick flash of a famous one.

Charities? Nah. Petition signing? Uh, uh. Click to Give buttons? Aye, right!

And that’s the best news of all. Because once we take full and grown-up responsibility for changing the things it is in our power to change (and that’s always more than we think), we can start to make the difference the world is waiting for.

So over the last few years, I’ve been working hard to de-anaesthetise my life and stop numbing-down my days with screen time and trash TV. I’m unlearning the mantra of our times that you are what you buy (though I haven’t yet got round to applying it to books and plants), disrupting my life more and filling my time with experience, not things.

These days, I sign far fewer petitions – so few that Greenpeace want to know if they’ve done something to upset me.

And each day I try and do something that honours and co-creates with this amazing planet that we’re lucky enough to call home – all from the comfort of my own backyard.

I’m changing my life, and little by little, it’s changing my world.

How far will you go to change yours?

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, We (Could) Have No Bananas

I’ve been a bit of a Peaknic for a long time now.

Working my way up through the Peak Oil Night Terrors (they’re a bit like dreaming of a Zombie Apocalypse, but with Texan Oil Barons and Fake Sheiks hell bent on world domination for private gain. Oh no, wait, that’s a thing) on to Peak Soil, Peak Farmers, Peak Food, Peak Phosphorus, Peak Helium (do you really need floaty balloons and a squeaky voice that much?) to Peak Common Sense.

But Peak Bananas? Nooooooooooo!!!

Last weekend was spoiled by the news that bananas are in trouble. (I checked the date – it wasn’t 1st April.)

Yes, I admit that I was at first intrigued to find that almost every banana we eat in the Western world is descended from one plant at Chatsworth House – a variety named Musa cavendishii after the family name of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire.

And yes, I did wonder for a minute or two (before the memory of my experiment in sweet potato production kicked in) if a triple-skinned polytunnel would be enough to bring forth the first Scottish banana. They need plenty of water, a rich loam soil and well-rotted dung and it’s not like we don’t have the water – though that’s peaking too. [Reality Check #2: maintaining a temperature between 18oC and 30oC may be a bit of a push?]

Like the Gros Michel variety before it, the Cavendish banana is now being decimated by a new strain of the fungus known as Panama Disease or banana wilt. (No jokes about sex education classes, please).

surreal-1136080_640

And though other banana breeds are available, it seems we’ve done that thing we always do and stripped away diversity and difference in the interests of turning a quick buck. Why, oh why, when it comes to the bits of nature we want to eat do we have a one-size-fits-all, any-colour-as-long-as-it’s-yellow approach?

Because it’s hard to make as big a profit if you can’t standardize.

So the nature we don’t try to tame goes off and mutates a gene here and introduces a slight variation there and some of them work and some of them don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s always something that’s going to get through.

Meanwhile, for the trivial things like food, we create vast deserts of monoculture just asking to be decimated by the latest strain of nature doing what it does best.

Wasn’t it Einstein who said insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

 

Midwinter Feast of Light: Reviving the Magical Foods of Imbolc

Not long now! We love the magical celebration of Imbolc and the promise of the season to come.

Gather Victoria

imbolcgather1 Gather’s Midwinter Celebration, 2014

I love the ancient feast days of the pagan calendar. Celebrating the turn of the “great wheel of the year” through the solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, these “holy days” are the origin of most of our modern holidays. And no matter what ancestral culture you descend from, it’s a pretty safe bet that most of your beloved holiday foods were once “holy foods”, ritually prepared and consumed to bring fertility, good harvest and prosperity to the land.

imbolcwheeloftheyear

Which is why Jennifer and I are once again busy in the kitchen. We’re preparing to celebrate one the oldest and most magical holy days of the ancient calendar- the upcoming Midwinter Festival of Light. Falling at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, it can be dated as far back as the Neolithic when megalithic chambers marked the light of the rising sun on…

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Getting Hygge With It

April may be the cruellest month, but in Scotland, January comes a close second.

From the sadness of a house denuded of Christmas sparkle…

…followed closely by the most depressing day of the year

…boosted by the rapid succession of Storms Adrian, Bathsheba, Crispin and Dorothea (is it just me or are they getting more frequent and intense since the Met Office started to give them names?)…

…we get a brief respite from sorrow for Burns Night only to have happiness snatched away from us when the Tax Man Cometh at the end of the month. Misery, thy name is January.

But not for us, not this year. Because this is the year we discovered Hygge.

Hygge (pronounced hue-gah – which apparently is a bit like the noise you make when clearing your throat) is a Danish thing which roughly translates to ‘cosiness’ or ‘the art of creating intimacy’. Simple things made special.

If you haven’t heard of hygge yet (where have you been??), think of the zen of making and enjoying the perfect cup of coffee, warm open fires, blankets and cosy socks and hand knitted jumpers (Sarah Lund-style is optional).

candles-209157_640Think candles. Everywhere – even if they are now bad for our health.

More than anything, think family and friends. Whatever else hygge is, it’s very, very social.

So we hunkered down to survive winter by getting hygge. Board games? Check. Coffee and Swedish Fika? Check. Trip to IKEA for candles (overdraft pre-arranged)? Check. Enough knitwear to clothe a Tartan Army? A mini-library of unread books? A stash of craft materials? Check, check, check.

And it’s been lovely, honest it has.

Except for the vagaries of climate change that brought us Spring in January and hawthorn in leaf and wet, wet, wet but warm, warm, warm days too. A soggy hygge at 120C just doesn’t seem quite so essential and authentic as it would in the bleak midwinter.

Will we do it next year? You bet – though we may need a trip to IKEA to top up on candles.

But… while it’s cosy and snug to settle down to hygge with close friends and family, I do wonder if its settled insularity might stop people reaching out to those who really need to feel safe and warm during the Winter of 2016. (Is the hygge mindset entirely unrelated to today’s decision by the Danish parliament to confiscate asylum seekers’ valuables to pay for their upkeep?).

So my overwhelming feeling from our hygge experience so far is that what the world needs now is to get out more and crack open that cup o’ kindness!

Where’s my quaich?

 

 

So long folks – and thanks for all the greens

There’s a strange mixture of sadness and excitement here at Lets Eat Local Towers.

Sadness because we’ve just had our last veg bag pick-up and we’re not quite sure what to do with all the free time that’s suddenly appeared in our oh so busy lives. (Do you know what an empty Outlook Calendar looks like? It’s scary – vast tracts of unpredeterminedness at a time when we all feel the need to be running around like headless chickens.)

But excitement too because of all the ideas that are buzzing around our heads for what happens next.

It hasn’t been an easy decision to put the Lets Eat Local Fruit and Veg Bag Scheme on hold. There were tears! There was swithering – lots of swithering. There was denial and disbelief and probably every other bit of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Change Curve thrown in for good measure.

We constructed defences:

  • 2015 has been a bad year for growing – almost (but not quite) as bad as the apocalyptic 2012 growing season. Things can only get better;
  • If we can just keep going to July, no August, well, September then, everything will be alright and we’ll have no problem getting all the local organic veg we need for our ever expanding number of members;
  • If we can just totally restructure the supply chain – preferably by Christmas – we’ll have it sussed;
  • and more besides.

But you know how when you’re trying to avoid the hard questions and ‘things’ keep coming to trip you up and remind you that you can run, but you can’t hide?

Our ‘booby trap’ came in the form of Sharon Astyk‘s pretty amazing book Depletion and Abundance. One line pushed every button so much that it stuck in our heads and refused to shift:

We cannot change our food system without changing our lives.

And, whichever way we looked at it, we were having to spend so much time in administration and spreadsheets and driving around and generally being part of the old way of being – albeit with an ‘organic’ twist – that there was never any time left to change our lives, let alone the food system.

So we’re taking time out to think and do something about changing the way food works.

We’re starting with the development of a Permaculture farmlet and we’ve got all sorts of exciting plans – for HF/HX (and knowing us, we’ll try and squeeze in an HY too); for food being free (and just about everywhere); for giving everyone more control over the hands that feed them; for making good food and nutrition an essential part of a real Health Service… you name it, it’s probably somewhere on a mindmap in our office!

Keep checking back to find out how things are going or to get involved in the conversation.

Oh, and weeders are always welcome too!

Lunar-cy

This year, I shall be mostly planting by the moon.

I’ve tried it before (a few times) and it seemed to work quite well, for as long as I did it. (Which, if I’m honest, wasn’t very long.)

But, as we want to be putting amazingly healthy herbs, fruits and veggies into the Lets Eat Local bags, making sure they’re buzzing with the right lunar vibes has to be on message – doesn’t it?

Now I’ve started, I remember why previous attempts lapsed pretty quickly. It’s so *%^&£ing complicated! There appear to be three different systems for planting by the moon – Synodic, Biodynamic and Sidereal – each of which have different instructions for any given day. Then there’s the waxing and waning bit which comes with its own set of rules – should you sow? – or harvest? or weed? Is it a good time to chop down trees? or open a bottle of wine?

Add to the mix the North Nodes and South Nodes and Perigees – which, as far as I can tell, give you a wee break from all that gardening and time to catch up on the housework.

One of my words for the year is ‘pragmatism’. In a ‘Just Do It’ moment (other tag lines are available) I bought Nick Kollerstrom’s book Gardening and Planting by the Moon 2015 and I’m just following that. It may be inaccurate in parts and in conflict with other systems, but to be honest, I’m past caring.

Leaf Day plantings
This being a Leaf Day means the herbs finally get potted on

So yesterday was a leaf day (the Moon being in Cancer) and I got busy sowing spinach and repotting lots of lovely herby leaf things – Moroccan mint for mint tea, Camellia sinensis assamica for tea tea – while David cut the leafy (and docky and creeping buttercuppy) grass. And it may be, because the moon is waxing, that the grass grows back too quickly and needs cutting again in days. And the roots on my leafy, herby things may not grow as well as they should, or may grow better than the leaves – who knows?

Gardening diary
This year, I will keep a gardening diary…

I’ll learn – in time – what works and what doesn’t. And, admitting at last that I probably won’t remember what I did 12 months hence, I’m using the book’s handy ‘week to a page’ diary format to actually make a note of what I’ve done.

Me? Writing in books? Anyone who knows me, knows that my books are my preciousssses – no notes allowed!  This moon thing must be driving me mad…

Expensive Mistakes No. 17

Our sweet potato problems started with this seemingly innocent bowl of soup
Our sweet potato problems started with this seemingly innocent bowl of soup

Last autumn, on a Scottish road trip that lasted all of 18 hours, I tasted sweet potato and coconut soup for the first time ever. Since then, I’ve been ever so slightly obsessed. First with tracking down the recipe, then with buying as many organic sweet potatoes and tins of organic coconut milk as our budget would allow.

I am a person of habit – a serious Pinterest habit in particular. So when my Pinterest feed popped up with a pin named Sweet Potatoes – your next cash crop, my mind raced ahead. Our own Moffat sweet potatoes in the Lets Eat Local veg bags. A high value cash crop for our smallholding (docks and nettles have little market value, I find).

A month or so later, I take delivery of two (rather expensive) packs of sweet potato slips – the bit that starts your sweet potato empire.

Now I’m not good at the 4P’s of growing – instead of Plan, Prepare, Purchase, Plant, my growing style is more 3B. Buy (on impulse), aBandon, Bin. But never were mere slips of plants more cherished than these bits of green.

Except. On Sunday night, they were left overnight in the greenhouse – it has to get really cold to cause problems for my plants in there. Especially in late April. But a devilish (and unexpected) sharp frost left the leaves of my poor Ipomoea batatas as slimy green mush.

I’ve radically pruned and they are in intensive care. There are wee green dots appearing in a few places – which may be the new shoots of recovery or just ambient greenfly. Time will tell.

To add insult to injury, it’s supposed to be really easy to grow your own sweet potato slips from organic sweet potatoes, though this may be another Pinterest peri-urban legend.

Plans for sweet potato market domination are currently on hold.

Mushroom growing anyone?

Rhubarb, Rhubarb

We’re putting a bit of our own rhubarb in the Standard Fruit Bags this week – crack open those Rhubarb Crumble Muffin recipes!

Rhubarb is a native of Siberia and thrives in wet, cold winters (even ones that extend into late April) – making it perfect for Scotland. But though we’re pleased as punch to be able to supply a bit of Moffat rhubarb, ours is slow off the mark compared to the produce from one of the most famous rhubarb growing areas in the UK.

West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world’s winter forced rhubarb from the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, an area of about 30 square miles between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. In the late 19th century early forced rhubarb was sent to Spitalfields and Covent Garden markets in London in time for Christmas and was sent to Paris for the French market. Though much smaller nowadays, the Rhubarb Triangle is still famous for producing early forced rhubarb and has Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Commission.

Yorkshire rhubarb is always kept in the dark
Yorkshire rhubarb is always kept in the dark

Rhubarb plants in the Triangle spend two years in the fields without being harvested, storing energy from the sun in their roots as carbohydrates, before being subjected to frost and transferred to heated sheds in November. There they are planted and kept in complete darkness. In the sheds the plants begin to grow in the warmth and their stored carbohydrate is transformed into glucose, resulting in forced rhubarb’s bittersweet flavour.

The sheds are long, low buildings which are heated – originally with the coal which was plentiful and relatively cheap in the area. Nowadays, diesel is used instead.

Forced rhubarb grown in these sheds is more tender than the stuff we grow outdoors in spring and summer. Without daylight the rhubarb leaves are a pale green-yellow and the 2-foot long stalks are sweet and tender. Traditionally the pickers harvest in candlelight as any exposure to strong light will stop the growth of the stalks. By the end of March the harvest is over, the rhubarb roots totally exhausted and fit only to be used as compost.

Of course, now we can get more exotic fruits from around the world, rhubarb is no longer so popular and the heyday of the Rhubarb Triangle is long gone.

Now, though I come from Yorkshire, I’ve never tried Yorkshire rhubarb. And while I love the idea of keeping the tradition going, I can’t help but feel it’s a very energy intensive way of producing a crop and can’t quite get my head around trashing all those wonderful rhubarb roots!

As far as our fruit bags go, we’ll stick with the unforced rhubarb for the foreseeable future – grown without heat, cropping year after year, it’s our idea of a truly sustainable fruit!

Life is sweet (cicely)

This time of year, there’s a little bit of magic right outside my back door.

A delightful forest garden patch just outside my back door
Forest gardening – grow your own for the chronically lazy

No, it’s not the Snake’s Head Fritillary – though a life-long love of Charles Rennie Mackintosh means I can’t see their lovely flowers without coming over all Art Nouveau. Nor is it the many dock plants ‘dynamically accumulating’ lots of minerals from deep underground with their long tap roots.

It’s not even the lovely, delicate yellowness of the oxlips (they were supposed to be cowslips so we could get enough flowers to make cowslip wine, but someone in the garden centre obviously got their labels mixed up).

No, my own bit of magic is our mini forest garden just outside our house. Planted a couple of years ago with a few bits of wild garlic and a single sweet cicely plant around an old and ailing bird cherry tree, it has since gone native and is now become our ‘go to’ spot to spritz up our salads and our scrambled eggs.

daffodils
Daffodils at the base of our very heavily pollarded bird cherry

Forest gardening is a way of designing a bit of land to mimic a young woodland, planted up with edible or useful plants. It has a top storey of fruit and nut trees, with under-storeys of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, herbs, annuals, root crops and climbers, all planted to make a wonderfully productive, naturally fertile landscape. It’s the perfect gardening technique for the terminally lazy and it’s one that we use a lot!

With only the effort of wandering out to see what I fancy for tonight’s meal, since early April I’ve been harvesting a range of salad leaves from our patches of forest garden for which I would have to pay an arm and a leg in the shops – sweet cicely, lovage, wild garlic, tarragon, rocket, watercress, salad burnet and masses more (and not a limp lettuce leaf amongst them).

Later on, I’ll have soft fruits, nuts, crops for hedgerow jellies and wines, a bit of willow for my first attempts at basketry, herbs which act as natural fly and moth deterrents, topped with a crop of more apples than I know what to do with. And apart from trimming off the odd nettle (yes, I know, I should be using those too), there’s no weeding required.

That’s my kind of grow your own!

If you fancy giving forest gardening a go, Lets Live Local have produced a free booklet on how to go about it. Email us on admin@letslivelocal.co.uk if you’d like a copy.