This week I have been chitting potatoes. Chitting is the best garden job for the lazy gardener. It just means letting your root vegetables sprout out of their tiny eyes before planting, so involves no actual work at all other than taking the seed potatoes out of their string bag and laying them out in a tray in a place that has light but not full sun. Taking them out of their bag is important, because they will still sprout if you leave them in the bag, and the delicate sprouts will break off as you pull them out of the netting bag.. ask me how I know..
I have planted the first seeds of the year, some of which are quite old seeds from the bottom of my seed basket. The only ones which have sprouted so far are the ones I bought this last autumn. Most seeds grow best if they are reasonably fresh, which is why seed swapping parties are the best. I am determined to use up all of my old seed this year so I can buy new with a clear conscience. I also saved a lot of seed last year, which I will either plant or share. Seeds are not resources you can hoard. Seeds have to be grown and saved again in order to keep them viable.
As I was driving a child (forget which one) on some no doubt vital excursion this week I spied a rather large firewood log abandoned in the gutter, so I pulled over and loaded it into the boot of the car, child sinking down in the passenger seat and moaning, "Muuuum, do you have to?" Well, yes, my darling, I do - as a member of the Wombling club it is my duty to be making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folk leave behind..
My friend Monique and I swapped some of the many self-seeded goodies popping up in our gardens. I took her love-in-a-mist and violas and she gave me lettuce, kale and parsley. I love sharing plants. Plants are so wonderfully, generously prolific. With a little patience and the kindness of other gardeners, most plants are not something that need be part of the money economy. In autumn I gave away dozens of jonquil bulbs that have been quietly multiplying in my wild garden for decades, and this year there will be dozens more to share. They are growing so thickly they have stopped flowering, but given a year and enough space they will continue growing in other gardens for decades more. Nature isn't going to stop growing plants and we may as well make the most of it and share the bounty around. It astonishes me just how extraordinarily fertile an average plant is, given a little encouragement..
I have been enjoying some low key thrifty adventures in the garden this week, how about you? PS In other news, the article I wrote for Earth Garden was bumped from the spring to the summer edition. I will have to wait another three months to see my name in print :( But it will happen!
Katherine brought me flowers from her garden. Spring!
You probably didn't notice because, well, I expect you have other things to do, but I have been away from these pages for Quite Some Time. Reason being: technology. Katherine, a dear friend of mine, volunteered her partner, the very kind and long-suffering IT genius, Matt, to take a look at my old laptop which had being saying NO to quite the number of computer-expected activities, like looking at email, for instance. Matt valiantly struggled for most of one Sunday afternoon with my laptop, while I helped Katherine cut out a sewing pattern (well, let's just say, I tried to help), and visited her chickens and her broody turkey.
Matt updated and reinstalled everything that could be updated and reinstalled, and I ended up with a laptop that worked much more efficiently except that it refused to load blogger for me. The computer said NO. Then on Friday night Matt and Katherine came for dinner, bringing one of Matt's 'old' laptops with him (when I say old, I mean newer than any laptop I have ever owned!) which he had loaded with all the programs I need to function, and which magically lets me write blog posts! I am so very lucky and blessed with a richness of kind and very accomplished friends.
I often plough on through life, taking certain things for granted until a life event pulls me up short and I am forced to stop and examine a state of affairs that I normally accept without thinking about, and this week Matt's kindness, patience and generosity made me stop and think about friends. I have an absolutely stirling set of friends, a circle which waxes and wanes over time - mostly waxing I am pleased to say! We are in and out of each others' houses and lives, and we have a pretty fluid notion of 'things'. Our kids inherit all the clothes of all the other kids - last week I passed on a denim jacket to a friend's daughter and I traced its provenance through at least three mutual friends until it reached this wee poppet, and I am sure it will continue on past her as well. I love that our kids all love sharing clothes! We adults share clothes between us as well, and when I moved from a large house to a small cottage I gave away half my furniture, so I walk into my friends' houses and see my old couches, tables and sideboards and enjoy the bounty from other households at my place (my friend Sandra and I swapped dining tables as I needed a smaller one and she wanted a bigger one). I also took all our camping gear to Sandra's place as she had storage space and no camping gear and I had camping gear but no storage space. Who does that camping gear belong to? Well, neither of us and both of us and everyone else who wants to borrow it, really.
What I love is that we don't hesitate to borrow or lend or give stuff away. Last week my spade broke when the handyman who was working for me accidentally heaved an enormous sleeper onto it. When I visited my friend Monique to swap some seedlings with her, I asked to borrow her spade for an afternoon's gardening, as I hadn't got to the market yet to look for a new (secondhand) spade. She lent me her spade, then sent me a text later telling me to keep it as she had two. To be honest, she is not sure where the second spade came from. It may actually belong to one of our other friends..
Of course, friends don't exist just for the reason of sharing stuff around. We are there for each other in good times and bad. We share endless cups of tea and a listening ear. We provide meals and clean each other's houses in a crisis. We look after each other's kids and have parties and order bulk toilet paper together.
Really, we are a bunch of people who like each other, but we also provide a mutual safety net. I think one of the reasons I feel so optimistic about my life, is that whatever happens, there are people who have my back. And I have theirs. Friendship isn't always easy, and helping friends and family often requires a great investment in time and energy. I expect Matt could have found something more pleasant to do with his Sunday afternoon than helping me with my computer, and spending more hours loading programs onto his old laptop for me. And yet, what he did, I won't forget. Friendship and community doesn't work on the basis of credit and debt, it works on the basis of what goes around, comes around. Kind deeds and shared work cements friendships and creates a web of 'knowing who you can rely on' and 'being the kind of person other people can rely on'. Individuals sometimes fail but the web keeps holding us all up anyway.
That is what my community looks like, and I feel very blessed to have it. Tell me about yours..
As for Miss Marple, once she had caught a glimpse out of her bedroom window of Lucy Eyelesbarrow really trenching for sweet peas in the proper way, she had leaned back on her pillows with a sigh of relief..
Agatha Christie, 4.50 From Paddington
The wattle is yellow on the hillsides, and the daffodils are blooming their heads off in the garden, which can only mean one thing - it is time to plant peas. Peas are very hardy and are one of the first crops to go into the spring garden. However, if you live somewhere cold, where the soil is still definitely sulking, your peas will be much happier for being trenched. They will stay warmer in early Spring, and their roots will stay moister as the weather warms and the soil dries out.
Trenching peas involves exactly what it sounds like - digging a trench along the row where you want to plant your peas. The 'proper' depth for the trench is 30cm, or a spade's depth, but my soil is fairly light and free draining, so I just dug a trowel's depth instead.
Into this I tipped a layer of compost from my compost bin, then a layer of weeds. It wasn't difficult to find a bucketful of fresh, juicy spring weeds to sacrifice to the greater good of happy peas. The layer of weeds will slowly rot down, providing first warmth in the cold spring soil, then an open airy space for the peas' roots to penetrate, and then the trench will collapse slightly as the weeds' volume compacts down, and there will be a nice trench to fill with water as the weather gets warmer and drier. The weeds and compost also provide a sponge effect to retain moisture. This very simple little trench provides many benefits to the lucky peas.
Another layer of compost, and then returning the soil to fill the trench up to the top.
I soak pea seeds overnight before planting them to give them a head start in the ground - this also allows you to see which pea seeds will be viable. The good ones plump up, rehydrate and sink, while the duds stay wrinkly and float on the surface of the water.
Pea sticks are always useful for the pea vines to twine up. I use prunings from the apricot tree. There. The first garden job of spring. Done.
Updated to add: My friend Katherine noted that I missed a step above.. after you have soaked the peas you plant them in the top layer of soil above the compost. A rule of thumb for planting seeds is to plant them at a depth of twice the diameter of the seed. Ironic isn't it.. a post on planting peas which misses out the part where you plant the seeds.. thanks Katherine:)
Over the winter I have been drying orange peels on the wood heater. They make the most marvellous fire starters, as they are full of oils, and they make the house smell lovely as they dry. Actually, they generally get slightly scorched when I dry them on the fire, but I figure they will get a lot more scorched when I use them as fire starters..
And look at my new kettle! I have been hunting for a second hand stovetop kettle for ages, and was just about to give up and buy a new one when my friend Katherine found this adorable whistling kettle at the op shop. Actually, it is more of a shrieking kettle. When it boils it shrieks like a toddler having a temper tantrum at the supermarket, and it makes me laugh every time. I keep the kettle on the fire for endless cups of tea.. it never gets to shrieking point on the fire, but burbles away happily to itself. I pop it on the gas and it comes to a shrieking boil in a few seconds. It is very companionable, it's like having another pet :) When I am not using all this lovely free hot water for cups of tea I periodically take the kettle outside and pour the nearly boiling water on the weeds attempting to grow between the pavers in the courtyard. Nothing discourages weeds quite so much as a kettle of boiling water.
When the fire isn't on I am continuing to use the vintage kettle I bought a couple of years ago. Several months after I bought it, The Boy accidentally killed it by neglecting to cover the electric fuse mechanism thingy with water. But then a few months later I found a spare fuse in an op-shop, and The Boy bought me another jug at Christmas time, so I have back ups. I am not sure that this is strictly thrifty or green as I am sure it would be using a whole lot more electricity than a modern kettle, but it gives me so much joy. I love the simplicity of it. It is literally a jug, with the most basic electrical mechanism attached. I was reading a book recently, written in the 1960s in New Zealand, and the author mentioned 'plugging in the jug' to make a cup of tea, and I remembered that phrase from my childhood. These types of kettles were mostly gone then, except from church kitchens and old people's houses, but the phrase remained.
The girls and I made a bean trellis. When I moved in here one of my fences was a wire and iron dropper one, which was not at all dog proof. I had it replaced, but kept the old fencing as I knew it would come in handy one day, and it has. I plan for it to be dripping with green beans come summer. As you can see I did not do anything so tedious as measuring matching spaces between the poles..
I have been removing plants from the strawberry patch to decongest it a little and have transplanted them to make a new strawberry patch. The first little self-seeded lettuces are beginning to pop up, so I transplanted them to a safe place next to the strawberries, so that they won't be accidentally weeded or stepped on. The first self-seeding baby rocket plants have popped up among the garlic, so I will leave them there for a while to enjoy our first baby greens for the year. I am so excited because it is nearly Spring and there are jonquils and daffodils out, and the next door neighbour's plum tree is in blossom. There are bees! Spring is so thrilling!
What green and thrifty projects have you been up to this week?
Well, my camera died, my phone is on the way out and my laptop is dying as well. Now, you know me well - the last thing I want to do is to run out and buy a bunch of new technology that is a) very expensive, and b) using up remaining limited stocks of rare earth metals and whathaveyou in its insides. I did buy the camera new, many years ago. It is one of those point and shoot digital types that is now so passe what with phone cameras being better and all - but my phone, which used to belong to The Girl, worked well for most things, even took photos, but refused to transmit those photos to any other device. I have never had a new phone. I always happily received very old phones from whoever was getting rid of them. Generally my phones had been lying about in drawers for several years before their owners passed them on to me as the last stop before the recycling bin. My laptop came from the husband of an old friend of mine who in the course of his work rescues unwanted laptops from schools and government departments and refurbishes them for anyone in the community who needs one. He is one of my personal heroes. This laptop has been brilliant - it has a Linux Mint operating system installed, open source software, a concept which I love, and which has worked wonderfully. However, now I want to do some writing, and the hard truth appears to be that publishers require Windows documents. And this laptop has a completely dead battery - I can only use it when it is plugged in. And sometimes just dies,which is worrying. The Girl gave me her old school laptop, and that works fine, but its battery is dying too, and, get this, I can do anything on it except open up blogger! It refuses to let me in. Which is a bit awkward.
So I rang The Boy to ask if he or any of his technologically sophisticated friends had a laptop or phone to sell. Turns out he had an iPhone 5 sitting in a drawer that he thought would make a good late birthday present for me, because he is so lovely, so I now have the phone/camera problem all sorted. Well, I will when I ring the phone people to get them to send me a new, tiny sim card. I hate ringing the phone people. Sigh. But I have made a pact with myself that I can't eat lunch until I ring the phone company. It will be interesting to find out whether I want lunch more than I want to not ring the phone company..
I have to say I am very tempted to run out and buy a new laptop. It just seems so convenient to walk into a shop, plunk down money, and there you have it, a brand new shiny thing.. but I probably couldn't even bring myself to that. And where would the excitement, the serendipity, the story be in that? Nowhere, that's where. And life without uncertainty and thrill of the unknown? Completely unbearable. I'll keep you updated:)
PS I am trying hard not to think of all the photos that I never got around to taking off my camera before it crashed to the floor and stopped working forever. Go store your photos somewhere safe now! There won't be any new photos for a few days, but enjoy this portrait of Benny-the-tired-puppy by my brother from last year.
In the continuing war on waste, at a household level by far the most effective strategy I have for reducing our municipal garbage output is composting. I have a very simple and comprehensive composting system.
Three large compost bins. One is filled and has been spending several months quietly composting away. One is nearly full, and one is waiting to be filled.
These bins are recycled plastic and made in Australia. They are the simplest type of compost bin - they have no base, are placed directly on the soil, they have a hinged lid. You don't need to buy compost bins - you can use any old lidded bin of any size, cut out the base and away you go. Now these bins won't make your classic turned, hot compost. They are too small to heat up properly. To make a hot compost that kills pathogens and weed seeds you need a heap that is made all at once and is at least 1 cubic metre (35 cubic feet) in size. This is generally not practical in a small suburban garden. My plastic bins are not compost bins so much as large worm farms. They produce what is called 'cold compost' but is actually pretty much worm castings, and the process takes at least a year in our temperate cool climate. If you live somewhere warmer than Tasmania the process will go quicker, and if you have snow in the winter, it will take longer.
There is no secret or complicated method to producing cold compost. You start with a bucket full of kitchen scraps on the bottom of the bin, and add some compost worms (these are the worms you buy for your worm farm. Or ask a friend with a worm farm or compost. If you live in Launceston, ask me). You will need a double handful of worm-filled compost to start. Then add all your kitchen scraps, soft weeds, autumn leaves and vegie garden prunings. Anything that isn't actually sticks can go in. Sticks take longer to break down. I throw in all my kitchen waste, even the things that you aren't supposed to put in compost bins and worm farms, like meat, bones, dairy, onions and citrus skins. The worms in my bins have never seemed to care. Mind you, I don't have rodents or a dog that digs, so I know that what goes into the bin stays in the bin. Other things I put in the compost: hair, dust and dog hair from the dust pan, a small amount of fire ash, paper towel, natural fibres of any kind, tissues that haven't been used for anything nasty. Cold compost will not kill pathogens, so I don't put anything in it that will spread germs, like cat or dog poop, or snotty tissues. Tissues I flush down the toilet. Guinea pig and rabbit poop is fine though, and their bedding, and the newspaper from the bottom of the budgie cage. Another thing cold compost will not do is kill seeds, so do not throw in seeding weeds, or plants like ivy which will cheerfully resprout under any condition whatsoever.. this also means that you will have hundreds of tomato, pumpkin, zucchini and cucumber seedlings popping up when you spread the compost in the garden. This may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. I do admit it is very difficult to be hardhearted and hoe all of these baby plants back into the soil.
After a year or so the compost looks like this:
The only identifiable ingredient is eggshells, which is kind of bad news for when I get chickens, as chickens who peck at eggshells can become egg eaters. From now on I will be drying and grinding up the eggshells, and saving them as a chicken feed calcium supplement for my (as yet hypothetical) chickens. Otherwise the compost looks exactly like potting mix, but has more heft to it. It is wonderful, magical stuff for the garden. It adds nutrients, but also adds organic matter to the soil, helping it to become better draining and making it a more hospitable place for plants to grow.
Things to remember - site the bins in the shade so you won't kill the worms. Keep the compost damp in the summer. Worms like alkaline, so add a little fireplace ash or garden lime occasionally. If a cloud of tiny flies fly out when you open the lid, add another handful of lime and some garden soil. You will sometimes see an explosion of tiny white wriggly worms in the bin. Do not panic. They are the baby worms, and will grow up to do important composting work like their parents, so feed them well.
I have all the new curtains thanks to the kindness of my friends. When I moved in to our new house I had a quote done for curtains and blinds in three rooms. $2000. I thought again. Curtains. They are hemmed rectangles, right? I can hem a rectangle, I thought to myself. Then I hauled myself around town looking for the exact rustic weave, natural linen fabric I was after (none of the curtain-making places could produce this for me. The $2000 quote was for fabric that was synthetic). I figured it would cost a bomb, but hopefully less than $2000. But there wasn't anything that I wanted, at any price. Then I went to the hardware shop for paint for Rosy's door. And I found a shelf full of marvellous unbleached cotton fabric in a canvas weight, and it turned out to be painters' drop cloths. Brilliant! I bought enough fabric for the three windows that needed curtains, and it sat on my bedroom floor. For a year.
Until my clever and kind friend Katherine from the Living Better With Less Group said, "Why don't we come and help?" and I said, ever so gratefully, "Oh, yes please!" So they did. Katherine sews lots of her own clothes, has never sewed curtains, but was game to try.
Cindy actually knew what she was doing, being an experienced producer of curtains. The rest of us tried to be useful by handing over the scissors and making lots of tea. I was already at the point of wilting due to having had extensive conversation with the lady at the curtain shop, who was very nice but she also seemed rather doubtful that I had the least idea of what I was doing (she was so right) as she sold me blockout lining, header tape, hooks, and then I had to return because I forgot to buy thread. Still, we measured twice and cut once, and apparently did all the right things, because curtains happened.
Benson-the-curtain-making puppy helped immensely. He lay on his bed and had naps and didn't stir even when we accidentally dropped curtains onto him. Oh, wait, he says he was holding the curtains for us until we needed them again.
I tried all sorts of cunning tricks to avoid having to actually help sew. I made lots of tea, and served blueberry muffins and a cheese platter, and then more tea, and had run out of excuses and had just sat down to start hemming at the insistence of everyone, when there was a knock at the door... a couple who were just visiting Launceston had deduced that this was the wife's grandmother's house.. of course, I offered to show them around and discovered that a nice old lady called Dulcie Harris lived and died in this house about thirty years ago..
The others were convinced that I had arranged the whole affair in order to get out of sewing... but look, here I am, actually sewing, with photographic evidence. And so, thanks to the kindness of my friends, I can now sew curtains. And, no, it is not just theoretical knowledge, because this week I have sewed curtains for Posy's room, all by myself which is an actual miracle.
During the course of the sewing afternoon Cindy said, "We don't ask each other for help enough." It's so true. I hate asking for help. Most of us in our society can afford to buy help, so we do that. In our Living Better With Less Group, and in my wider circle of friends, we are attempting to turn that tide by learning to rely on each other a little more, giving and receiving help for all sorts of projects and learning and teaching so many new skills. And the truth is, being part of a community and doing things together is just more fun, as well as providing a practical safety net for each other.
Oh, and no surprises, my house is now much warmer. I can't believe I lived for over a year with no curtains in the house. Especially on the biggest window which is right next to the woodheater. Now we are cosy and warm. And if anyone wants help with curtain making, give me a call. I will make the tea..
Do you have a community of friends or family who volunteer to help with the quilting, the canning and the barn raising? How do you begin to become that kind of community?
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (17) and Posy (12). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..