Beer good, bindweed, bad.

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When I moved into my downstairs flat, the two flower beds at the front of the house and strip of land at the back were both covered in weed and full of gravel. There was a threadbare lawn and an overgrown hedge. That was about it, not overly inspiring.

So first thing was first, mowing the lawn. Let me just start with this, do not try to move an overgrown lawn with a strimmer, it will overheat, start smoking and send you running for the plug socket. A quick trip to home base and a mower was purchased. Lawn mown, check.

Enemy number one was weeds. Specifically bindweed. I have developed a deep resentment towards this plant in the past year, as it has been (and to some extent still is) the bane of my gardening life. The roots needs to be dug up and removed, but each root broken quickly regrows, and the plant is very prolific. Many gardener’s plump for a weedkiller to tackle bind weed, but this was not an option for me, I wanted my garden to be organic as many pesticides and herbicides are not species specific and kill totally indiscriminately. I have managed to eliminate it from the front garden, the back is still a work in progress.

Finally, it was time for the fun bit – plants. Planting must be one of every gardener’s favourite tasks, flowers, grasses, vegetables, herbs and fruit. Entering problem number two, slugs. They are everywhere and absolutely decimated my tomato seedlings, something had to be done. Pellets were not an option as the poisons migrate up the food chain when other animals such as hedgehogs and toads consume the slugs so I had to think. The other popular method of controlling slugs is using beer traps, so, traps were set on a damp night and I went to bed. In the morning, I checked my traps with anticipation and they were full to bursting! Mission accomplished. I have even managed to keep my hostas safe from the marauding molluscs. Hopefully, as I attract more predators to the garden, these will help keep the population under control.

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Providing habitat and resources for wildlife is my main target in my patch. I chose herbaceous perennials and shrubs which are nectar rich to attract pollinating insects. Firm favourites this year have been geraniums of which I have a number, they flower throughout the summer and require very little maintenance. Foxgloves, hebes, honeysuckle (excellent for moths) verbena, scabious and my lone sunflower (the others got eaten by the slugs, I definitely plant more next year) have also been popular. I installed an insect house which should hopefully be good habitat for insects such as solitary bees.

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Before I moved to my current place, I had never seen a slow worm, or to give them their other name, flower pot snake (isn’t that charming?). But this area is full of them. They are beguiling creatures and love nooks and crannies to hide in, so providing these as well as some basking spots have proved to be very effective. I made a log pile by my compost heap which should be a nice warm spot for them. As the wood rots down it will also be excellent habitat for insects and can be a good spot for hibernating toads, newts and butterflies as well as the resident reptiles.

I have a bird feeding table currently on the way. I have some feeders attached to the hedge, but the have not attracted much, birds tend to prefer feeding in the open where they can keep a watchful eye out for predators.

I feel like I have learned a lot this year and next year I plan to dig a wildlife pond near my log pile. Ponds are so important if you want to encourage wildlife into your garden, from dragonflies to frogs, toads, newts (if you’re lucky), hedgehogs and even bats will all use this valuable resource.

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I’ll keep you posted as I will be digging the pond next spring and hoping to revitalise the lawn with some grasses and wildflowers.

Lucy

Four fun facts about puffins

I think we can all agree that puffins are pretty darn cute, but here are some fun facts to help you get to know these avian clowns a little better.

 

1. Puffins only develop their spectacularly coloured bills and striking black and white plumage during breeding season, the rest of the year they spend in ‘eclipse’ plumage.

Puffin adultnon breeding

2. Puffins nest and rear their chicks in burrows and are reluctant to give away their location when being watched. This often gives the impression that the adult has ‘forgotten’ where it’s burrow is, but it is actually a clever trick to avoid chick predation.

Puffin sheltering in its burrow

3. The proper name for puffin chick is a ‘puffling’ and they are ludicrously fluffy.

A guillemot chick, sporting a black down coat for the summer

4. There are four species of puffin, with the award for the most fabulous eyebrows going to the tufted puffin.

Tufted Puffin

 

Three easy steps to cut down on plastic

Plastic is trouble.  It can take decades to biodegrade (and even when it does it causes pollution), its manufacture requires harmful oil extraction, huge amounts of energy to process and much of it is unrecyclable. What are we going to do about it? Cut down on the amount of plastic you consume, you can really make a difference, and here are three easy ways to start.

1. Think reusable

Much of the plastic we use is in disposable items, sandwich bags, straws and bottles being prime examples. Try to cut down on the plastic in your life by avoiding one or two use items, invest in some reusable bags or water bottles and do you really need a straw in your g&t? No? Get rid of it.

2. Ditch the supermarket

A huge proportion of food sold in supermarkets is packaged using plastic, often in excessive amounts, try shopping elsewhere such as local shops or a farmers market where you can pick up your fruit and veg without the packaging.

3. DIY

The more you do yourself the more control you have over the amount of plastic used. Try making your own lunch instead of buying it, and use a reusable bag for your sarnie, or make your own preserves using glass jars instead of plastic. Get creative!

 

Thanks for reading,

 

 

 

What to eat now..

 

Now is the perfect time to pick dandelion leaves and flowers for dandelion wine, soup, bruschetta topping or the roots to make dandelion coffee – a great alternative for those who are not keen on caffeine.  Here are some great recipes from Friends of the Earth, I will be trying the soup over the weekend. Happy foraging!

DANDELION WINE

3 qts dandelion flowers

* 1 lb golden raisins

* 1 gallon water

* 3 lbs granulated sugar

* 2 lemons

* 1 orange

* yeast and nutrient

Pick fresh flowers, trim of stalk, if extra careful trim off all green.  Put flowers in a large bowl. Set aside one pint of water,  bring the rest of a gallon to a boil. Pour the boiling water over the dandelion flowers and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Leave for two days, stirring twice daily. Pour flowers and water in large pot and bring to a low boil. Add sugar and the peeling of the citrus (peel thinly and avoid any white pith.). Low boil for one hour, pour into fermenter. Add the juice and pulp of the citrus. Allow to cool. Add yeast and yeast nutrient, cover, and put in a warm place for three days. Strain and pour into secondary fermenter. Add raisins and fit fermentation lock. Strain and rack after wine clears, adding water to top up. Leave until fermentation stops completely, rack again. Two months later rack and bottle. Age six months to a year.

DANDELION BLOSSOM CAKE

2 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

1½ tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1 cup sugar

1 cup Dandelion Blossom Syrup

1½ cups oil

4 eggs

2 cups Dandelion blossom petals

1 can crushed pineapple

½ cup walnuts

½ cup coconut

Sift together the dry ingredient. In separate bowl, beat the sugar, dandelion syrup, oil and eggs together until creamy, add the pineapple, walnuts, and coconut, and mix well. Stir the dry ingredients into the mixture until well blended. Pour batter into a greased, 9×13 cake pan and bake at 350° for about 40 minutes.

DANDELION SOUP

4 cups chopped dandelion leaves

2 cups dandelion flower petals

2 cups dandelion buds

1 Tbsp butter or olive oil

1 cup chopped wild leeks (or onions)

6 cloves garlic, minced

4 cups water

2 cups half-n-half or heavy cream

2 tsp salt

Gently boil the dandelion leaves in 6 cups water, then pour off the bitter water.  Boil gently a second time, pour off the bitter water. In a heavy-bottom soup pot, sauté wild leeks and garlic in butter or olive oil until tender. Add 4 cups of water, then the dandelion leaves, flower petals, buds, and salt. Simmer gently 45 minutes or so, add the cream and simmer a few minutes more, garnish with flower petals.

Fairtrade – fact or fiction?

 

The UK is the biggest current market for fair-trade products, from coffee to cotton and over the last few decades has become increasingly popular with nearly 5000 products now carrying the label.

But as an ethical consumer it is important not only to consider your purchases, but also to research the criteria and processes involved in certifications such as these.

Fair-trade is a brilliant concept, for the grower, a good minimum price, as well as additional financial supplements for community development projects such as health clinics and schools. For the consumer, the opportunity to contribute to a better standard of living for the growers and their communities. A great concept undoubtedly, but does it work in practice?

One of my ilks with fair-trade is that each grower must join a cooperative which must then complete a series of forms and jump through a series of bureaucratic ‘hoops’, before they can achieve the certification that guarantees said fair price. There are also costs involved in certification of schemes such as fair-trade, rainforest alliance etc.
Fair trade is usually aimed at producers in the developing world who’s living and working conditions are traditionally poorer than those in the developed world (or at least that is what their marketing strategy would have you believe). Herein lies the problem, if fair-trade is aimed at the disadvantaged and the less educated, is it realistic to expect them to have the skills necessary to put together a successful cooperative and complete the application is a manner satisfactory to achieve certification?

Please do not think I am being patronising to growers but I have enough trouble myself with bureaucratic processes, form filling etc. I once tried to apply for a new passport and driving license simultaneously and it was not much fun. More guidance should be provided to help individuals and cooperatives achieve certification.

Fair-trade sceptics also infer that fair-trade may not be as altruistic as it is marketed to be. Is it really for the benefit of producers, or is it just another marketing strategy to lure naïve, well-meaning consumers to pay more for products? It is a question worth asking.

Fair-trade products sold by large conglomerates and supermarkets still have the inherent problem of long and convoluted supply chains (as discussed in previous articles). Therefore it is vastly preferable for the consumer and the producer to reduce the number of links in the chain. Buying fair-trade products is a good start, but buying fair-trade products directly is much better. By cutting the supply chain, you can get much more information about the product and there is more money left over to go to the growers. The internet is a valuable resource for buying directly from producers, but buying locally from farmers markets is also great.

Critics also propose that the ‘fair minimum price’ for products does not adequately fluctuate with the open market price of the product which will do so, depending upon season, demand, supply etc. So when the free price is low, the fair-trade growers benefit, but when it is high, they would do better selling on the open market.

The extent of fair-trade certification benefit also depends upon the product. Products which have a history or corruption, or poor working conditions such as gold, will benefit for the certification more than say, coffee. Certified gold mines will attract a high level of ethical consumer driven demand as their product is ‘clean’, legitimate.

So whether fair-trade is fair or not is unclear, it is dependant upon circumstance, product, market price and other influencing factors. Choosing to buy products ethically and considering the people at the source is one of the core values of ethical consumerism. But information is critical, in some circumstances private certification schemes may be more appropriate. Either way, buying as directly as possible is always best.

Thanks for reading,

Lucy

Supermarkets, sourcing & social responsibility

 

I went into Morrison’s the other day, not my usual supermarket but as I was passing I popped in. As I browsed at the fish counter I could not see any that were MSC Certified, so I asked the chap manning the counter. He looked at me blankly when I mentioned the acronym, so I explained about how the Marine Stewardship Council give certification to sustainable fisheries, he still did not seem to know what I was talking about and wandered off to ask another employee. Result, I walked out fishless.

This is typical supermarket behaviour, it’s not the first time people don’t seem to know (or frankly, care) about sustainability or ethical criteria. But it’s not really the employee’s fault, it’s just the supermarket culture – sell as much as we can, as cheaply as we can, as fast as we can (and make a big fat profit while we’re at it). If you start asking questions, nobody knows the answers.

Supermarkets often make uncovering how products were farmed/made/produced very difficult, they are not transparent. How would one find out which farm a chicken came from? All the information on the packet entails is which country it is from and if you’re lucky a county. Ask an employee they don’t know, ask them how you would find out? They don’t know that either. Supermarket supply chains are typically long, complex and convoluted, making it very difficult to obtain and collate the facts about where the products come from, how and where they are processed etc.

Supermarkets seem to be lacking any sense of social or environmental responsibility, their sourcing methods are dubious and their end product often unhealthy and unsustainable. This has been highlighted recently in Huge Fernley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish fight’ program on channel 4 which has drawn attention to Tesco and their persistence in selling unsustainable tuna. Food waste from supermarkets is just another example of a disrespectful culture, we all read how Tesco wasted over 35,000 tonnes of food in six months last year. Little regard is shown for the health of their consumers, the fair treatment of their suppliers or the environment.

The lack of legislation does not help. There is no legal restriction on the amount of fat, sugar or salt which can be added to food sold in supermarkets for example, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic in the UK. Even health conscious consumers can be fooled, for example, Old El Paso fajita spice mix contains a shocking 59% sugar. Sobering in the extreme.

Supermarkets have become so ingrained in the consumer’s psyche in the UK that we can easily forget that there are other options. I went to my local farmers market this week and every single question I asked was answered politely and enthusiastically. Buying directly from growers ensures they get a fair price for their products, and they are happy to speak to you, discuss the product with you and seem grateful for your interest allowing you to be much better informed about what you are eating.

I am committing to spending less time at the supermarket and more in local shops and farmers markets. No to mention the produce is more often than not cheaper, fresher and of better quality than that found in your local supermarket.
Go ahead, go direct, I promise you won’t regret it.

Further reading

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20914685

10 amazing micro animals you wont believe actually exist

10. Pygmy seahorse
Tiny seahorses which inhabit Sea fan corals (Gorgonians). There are several species, each perfectly camouflaged to it’s corresponding species of coral.

9. Pygmy anteater
Also known as the silky anteater
8. Barbados Threadsnake
The smallest species of snake currently know, it is blind and endemic to the Island of Barbados
7. Pygmy Marmoset
This is the world smallest primate.
6. Bumblebee bat
This is the world’s smallest mammal weighing about as much as a penny.
5. Paedophryne amanuensis
This is the world’s smallest frog only discovered in 2012, it lives in the leaf litter of Papua New Guinea an island in the South Pacific with a huge number of endemic species.
4. Pygmy leaf Chameleon
One of my personal favourites, also endemic to Madagascar, living in the leaf litter eating tiny flies.
3. Pygmy possum
There are 5 species of extant pygmy possum all endemic to Australia.
 
2. Virgin Islands dwarf gecko
A beautiful little gecko endemic to the Virgin Islands.
1.Yellow Capped pygmy parrot
And one for luck… The musky rat kangaroo, the world’s smallest species of kangaroo.