Monday, 21 April 2014

Need or Want?

I have been reading Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by  Judith Levine, which was a recommendation from Jo at All the Blue Day. I will confess that I am not really enjoying it, but I am putting that down to a lack of personal connection with the author. There are areas I find fascinating, where Judith makes some astute observations, but then other discussions that are not relevant to me, living such a different lifestyle.

Judith had a bad Christmas shopping experience and decided to give up buying anything but essentials for a whole year. It is an anti-consumerist statement rather than a green statement, so Judith and her partner are pretty strict about not buying charity theatre tickets (which don't involve accumulating 'stuff') or second hand goods (which involves re-using existing 'stuff'). The book tracks her progress and thoughts throughout the year.

It is interesting reading about all the 'stuff' they have to start with, for instance 3 motor vehicles for a household with only 2 people. There are also magazine subscriptions, eating out, new books, wine, fashionable clothes, gifts and many other things that are non-essential, but painful to give up at first. I can definitely think of some luxuries that I wouldn't want to lose.

I did like how Judith looks at our 'needs' and our 'wants', and how we make the things that we want out to be a 'need' that we can't live without. One example was extending their home. They convinced themselves that they needed more space, how she couldn't get her work done without a separate room and how he needed more storage space for all his 'stuff'. Whilst the disruptive building work for the large and expensive extension was underway, they had to move their bedroom and workspace into the living room and Judith observed how cosy it was and how well everything fitted in. Did they really 'need' the extra space?

This is a valuable but difficult distinction to recognise. We are surrounded by advertisements telling us that we 'need' their product to make us slim, or look cool, or be popular, or be better at cooking, or run faster.....but we are also good at convincing ourselves that we need them. For instance some of my seedlings are dying on my living room windowsill. The ones in the kitchen are fine, but there is just not enough space for them all before it is warm enough to put them outside. I really need a greenhouse, so that I have plenty of warm sunny space for raising my plants. Plus it is more work trying to keep them watered and turned so they grow evenly, and the radiators below the windows provide too much warmth so they become leggy. I really need a greenhouse to do this properly otherwise I'm making more work for myself. Right?

But do I really 'need' one or just 'want' one? My thoughts regarding a greenhouse are really biased and selective. I mean there are plenty of places where I can buy seedlings cheaply, that are ready to be planted out. I don't have to grow them from seed myself. Or I could concentrate on plants more suited to our climate, or plant the seeds outside under cloches or just later in the year and get a later crop. Plus a greenhouse would entail more work, cleaning the glass, opening windows when it gets too hot, closing them at night and watering the plants regularly, not to mention the time and cost of buying and installing one. But all this can be overlooked, ignored or played down, in my mind which has decided that I do really 'need' a greenhouse ;-)

The same can happen when clothes shopping, and you really 'need' to find some shoes to match that outfit, or 'need' that new dress because people have seen you in all the other ones, or a new coat because last year's one looks dated. These are wants not really needs. I mean you do need to be clothed to keep you warm, but you can achieve that with very few outfits. Is this something you can relate to? It is much easier to spot in others than when you are doing it yourself!

It is easy for my brain to tell me that I 'need' something, but it takes a conscious effort to stop myself and ask do I really 'need' it. I have made a conscious decision not to buy any more electrical appliances, but it is hard. Every recipe that says ' ...and blitz it in your food processor.' makes me feel that I can't live without a food processor, but I can. It just involves a bit more chopping, grating, mixing, beating, whisking or sieving by hand.

Reducing the amount of 'stuff' manufactured, bought and then dumped is a true need. Vast amounts of energy and resources go into all the tantalising products lining shop windows and featured in glossy mags. We need to reduce carbon emissions if we want earth to remain habitable, and we need to stop squandering resources that will be needed by future generations. Every product we buy has a hidden environmental cost, so now's a good time to stop buying it, if it is not essential to your survival. Are you with me?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Allotment

I put my name on the list for a council allotment just under 2 years ago, and when I called them up in January, I was still 25th on the list. I thought it would be at least another year, so you can imagine my surprise to get a phone call out-of-the-blue offering me a plot. Within 2 hours we had signed the agreement on a plot, with a rent of £21 a year.

Actually it is half a plot, as that is all anyone is allowed in Loughborough now, which has helped the council to reduce its waiting list. In the picture above it starts from the path at the front down to just past the first shed on the left.

I was very lucky to get the small shed, although there is a big hole at the back and the roof leaks but these can be fixed. The plot itself is 125 square meters or 1/32 of an acre of sunny growing space. My back garden sounds bigger at 163 square meters, but as I discussed previously, most of it is heavily shaded, covered in old slabs, and filled with a trampoline and a basketball net. (My newly constructed compost bin has already been damaged by the basketball!) In effect my growing space is about 40 square meters at home, so this allotment quadruples my area for growing fruit and veg.

There are already established raspberry, rhubarb, blackcurrant, strawberries a grape vine and a goji berry bush! Sadly the previous owner died but his son and friend still work the plots opposite and have been really helpful. There were still beetroot, parsnips, leeks, and sprouting broccoli waiting to be harvested.

There were also some brassica with yellow flowers. A lovely Italian lady told me they were rapeseed (really!?!) and I should cut the tops off, boil them and drizzle with olive oil. They were surprisingly tasty :-)

The council had offered to rotivate the plot for me, but I opted not to, because there was so much already growing and I wanted it to guide me where to plant things for this year. Youngest daughter drew out a very detailed plan of what was there already. I managed to get it a bit wet and smudged, and I have just noticed that she has labelled the rhubarb as beetroot, but it is still perfect :-)

So there is a fair amount of digging to do, which we intend to do by hand a bit at a time and it will soon be finished. I am also going to try using Charles Dowding's no-dig method on part of it. This is where you put down a couple of layers of cardboard and then cover it with manure or compost.

I hadn't reckoned on how much an un-rotivated plot bothers some of the other allotmenteers. "You should have got it rotivated" is starting to grate on my nerves now! Luckily it is fairly easy digging and I have had some help.

We already grow plenty of rhubarb in our garden, so I have been re-distributing the excess rhubarb plants from my plot. Two of my neighbours have had some and I have planted some in the community allotment. The first real gardening that I ever did was planting rhubarb! My granddad had dug up some of his rhubarb crowns for me, which I thought was great.....until he also loaded my car with a sack of manure to go with it! Yes I was rather squeamish about my first encounter with manure, especially as I was planting on a slope and lumps kept rolling back down on me ;-) Now I am looking forward to getting my hands on a big pile of the stuff. Happy days :-)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Nice mice?

Do you have those days when you feel like rather a rubbish human being? With the latest report out from the IPCC about the implications of climate change we have good reason to feel gloomy! That isn't what triggered my feelings today though.

Having been too disorganised to make it to the Transition meeting, I was feeling rather cross with myself, so I decided to use the last glimmer of daylight to move my compost heap. A bit of gardening always cheers me up.... even if it is dusk and rather a smelly job.

At the weekend, I built a double compost bin, with the help of my oldest son and youngest daughter, which will look a lot tidier and be more practical than our current 'heap'. I am rather pleased with how good it looks (for a homemade compost bin), but I still needed to move the current compost pile to make a space for it. Plus I was hoping to dig some of the lovely well-rotted compost out, to use on my vegetable beds. I was happily digging away, when out dashed a little field mouse, and another, and another!

So I have had a stern lecture from my nature-loving husband, about not disturbing the wildlife in spring when everything is nesting and how the baby mice will now be unprotected, cold and likely die because of my efforts! They are mice - technically classed as a pest, but they are very cute and aren't causing us any harm, other than eating my radishes (and making me jump out of my skin every so often!). Also they are a source of food for the Tawny Owl that we hear in the woods behind the house, so killing the mice may also harm the owls that are already struggling with habitat loss and food shortages.

Not only am I now feeling dreadful about the wildlife, but can you imagine the mess I have created in my already untidy garden? We have a pile of un-rotted compost that I 'temporarily' dumped on the grass, a newly built compost bin still taking over the patio and a pile of semi-composted material at the back of the garden that is now untouchable! The full horror will hit when the sun comes up......

The shed is already out of bounds as the blackbirds have decided to nest in it this year. The last 2 years it was the robins. This year I have set myself a target of putting up some nest boxes to provide the birds with some alternative and more convenient accommodation, because I want to pull the old shed down. The shed happens to be in the sunniest spot in the garden, which would be the perfect position for a greenhouse. Do birds nest in greenhouses?

There is some good news on the local, home grown, food front.....after a 2 year wait I now have an allotment! (I think they are called Victory gardens in the US.) My growing space has now been doubled. Full details and photos to follow in the next post.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Review: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

I have just finished reading a book, as I have strained my knee, so I'm supposed to be 'resting'. Remarkably I have been sickness free all winter, so I have had little opportunity for reading and this book has been on the go for at least 6 months. It is called 'Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs' by Wendy Brown. and I feel it is well worth a quick review.

"Let's pretend that we know that in 21 days life as we know it will come to an end. It does not mean that life will cease to exist, and it does not mean that humans will be obliterated from the Earth. What it means is that all the things we have come to expect, all of the luxuries we enjoy, all the accoutrements of modern life that are part of our day-to-day existence will be harder to get or just no longer available."

To me this is a really useful exercise, because we don't know what the future holds. Major events often happen too quickly for us to take stock and prepare. Thinking and preparing now can stand us in good stead for all kinds of eventualities.

I know it seems unlikely that anything drastic will happen here in Britain, but just think back to some of the events that our grandparents lived through. World War II and rationing, the North Sea Flood of 1953, the Big Freeze of 1963, the 3 Day Week of 1974, the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, and the Fuel protests in 2000, to name a few. Technology may have advanced, but if anything that makes us even more exposed and vulnerable to loss of power or shortages. For instance do you know the phone numbers for your family, friends or doctor if you can't charge your mobile?

In her book, Wendy takes a day at a time and looks at the priorities that you may need to think about in order to be better prepared for eventualities. Starting with Day 1 looking at Shelter, she works through subsequent 'days' discussing water, food, cooking and so on, all the way to Day 21, which is about transportation. Some of it is common sense, but it is still good to hear again, because it makes you wonder why you haven't done anything to improve that aspect or be better prepared. For instance I know that in a power cut my boiler doesn't work because the controls rely on electricity, so what could I do about it? Wendy offers lots of solutions from the perspective that shortages are likely to be a long term problem for us in the future.

Wendy is clearly very knowledgeable about many aspects of what we call 'self-sufficiency'. I have certainly learnt more from her book about keeping animals, alternative healthcare and how to make my own vinegar. The only are where I disagree with her ideas is about wind turbines though, which I feel she dismisses rather too easily, based on them needing high-tech equipment to manufacture and maintain them. Wendy seems to have missed the potential for small scale wind turbines to provide useful mechanical energy or electricity. Many parts of the UK are still scattered with old windmills, that were used for milling wheat into flour, and have been recorded at least as far back as 1250. This is surely testament that we can harness the wind without the need for fossil fuels and modern day technology. The first wind turbine that was installed 30 years ago at The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales was made with wood and canvas sails. In strong winds someone had to climb up and furl the sails to prevent damage, but it was still a viable low tech solution.

Wendy also sees solar PV as lasting only 10 years, but with no moving parts they are expected to last at least 30 years. They probably aren't much of an option in Maine where Wendy lives, as summers are short, but in the UK and Europe prices have been dropping with government subsidies and these could potentially provide a partial alternative source of electricity for the next 30 years.

On the whole 'Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs' is a very easy to read book, with lots of good tips. It isn't very apocalyptic, so no zombie hordes or nuclear meltdowns, which suits me fine. There is the tiniest mention of guns in the chapter on security, but Wendy also points out that having a loud dog is the best security measure. I have yet to find a British 'preparedness' book, but I think that having read a few other American ones, Wendy's book is the best substitute. It is a calm and sensible evaluation of everything you may need to consider. Whether you decide to read the book or not, it is well worth thinking what you would do if you knew you only had 21 days to prepare.

Sunday, 16 March 2014


Having recently evaluated my annual mileage, I have been thinking a lot about distances. Yes I am talking about how far it is from one point to another, such as the distance from your home to work, or the distance the apples have travelled to end up in your fruit bowl.

When I buy apples I can stand there for several minutes peering at labels and evaluating the distances. Sometimes there will be coxes apples from the UK, but this is much less likely out of season. Then I will be sifting through the apples mainly from China, USA and New Zealand to try and find some that are from somewhere more local, like France or Holland.

The UK is fairly densely populated, certainly compared to the rest of Europe, so it may be little wonder that we are not currently self-sufficient in food. However there has always been trade with our European neighbours, notably France, Holland and Spain for food. The distance across the English Channel to France is just 21 miles, and from London to Paris is 213 miles as the crow flies (or 282 miles by road and ferry/tunnel). This is about the same distance as it is from New York to Washington DC, yet they are within the same country. Does this distance still count as local for us, whether it is in another state or a neighbouring country?

New York to Los Angeles is 2,448 miles direct (or 2,790 miles driving), which is more than 10 times the distance from London to Paris or Amsterdam. It's still in the USA though, so is it local for New Yorkers? Where do you think the equivalent distance from London would take you? To Rome? Or Moscow? Cairo? Further than that! It's 2,201 miles (2,854 driving) from London to Damascus in Syria, but Syria doesn't feel local to me. Yet during the course of a year my husband and I drive enough miles to get to Syria and back four times (including our business miles).

What can I take from this? I definitely do too much driving, even though the distances I travel are short and very local. But the main point is that this is our global economy. The apples in our shops can quite easily have travelled further in their short lifespan than I do in a year. Half way round the world even. I can also appreciate that it is our European neighbours, even though they may speak a different language, who are our closest allies and are best placed to supply us with food in times when oil for transport is expensive or scarce.