Friday, June 26, 2015


The first day of Winter 2015

It is a cold, cold Winter here in Tasmania. The first day of Winter was decorated lavishly by Jack Frost, and the days following were even more artistic, but standing outside in pyjamas taking photos wasn't high on my morning agenda after the first day.

I am on the electricity war-path again this Winter, as our cold-weather electricity usage is disgracefully high, mostly due to our terribly inefficient electric heating system. Now, I have no intention of forcing the dear little petals to shiver in the cold all Winter, but I also have no intention to keep on heating the whole house. One of the more wonderful things about being a single parent is not having to negotiate with another adult about living conditions. When we were renovating The Man was quite keen that the whole house be evenly warm all winter. Granted, this is a fairly typical expectation in a cold climate, but not one I subscribe to. Quite apart from the electricity bill, I like living in a house that has cold parts and toasty warm parts. Part of the joy of warmth is the contrast with cold. If all of the house is an evenly warm 21C all winter where is the sheer gratitude of gathering in a warm room, enjoying cuddling around the fire or making the kitchen a warm cave of baking and glorious hot stew smells?

So this winter I have refused to turn on the underfloor heating in the bathroom. It is ridiculously expensive to use, and my reasoning is that in the bathroom you are either in a hot shower, which keeps you nice and warm, or you can keep your feet warm via an advanced technology popularly known as 'slippers'.

In the living room I have draped blankets over the back of the couch for snuggling under. One of them is a lovely pure wool picnic blanket, which I decided was not doing enough work, so now it is a couch blanket. Pure wool is amazing! You do not need space heating when snuggled under a wool blanket to read a book.

I am also powering along with my crocheted afghan rug. It may not be finished for some time yet, but it will definitely be ready for next Winter!

Getting a dog is also an excellent winter warmer. Brisk walking or reluctant jogging with the dog for forty minutes or so keeps us warm for at least an hour afterwards. I guess chopping wood has the same effect.. maybe next year? I do not have a good record with sharp things.. Anyway, the dog is also an excellent hot water bottle, and sleeps under the covers with the girls.. I have given up on trying to mandate where the dog sleeps. I figure graciously ceding control is more dignified than fighting a losing battle..

I am also perfecting the art of bed making for winter. One of my pet hates is heating in bedrooms. I love a cold, fresh bedroom, and am totally in favour of the nineteenth century passion for keeping a window open as much as possible in a bedroom.

However, again, the contrast is important - a wonderful warm and toasty bed is vital, because it is hard to sleep when you are cold. First, it is important to insulate the mattress, because a lot of cold air comes up under the bed and straight through a box spring mattress. Here in Tasmania I find it useful to have two quilts - a light summer one, and a warm wool one for winter. In winter I use the summer quilt for insulation. So the layers go like this - summer quilt, held in place by the mattress protector, then covered by a delicious flannelette sheet. Flannelette is one of the great inventions in my opinion. Nothing more cosy on a winter's night.. I know this is starting to sound like the princess and the pea story, but bear with me. Next is the top sheet (flannelette of course) then a thin cotton blanket, then the winter wool quilt. The reason for all the layers? Air gets trapped between them, and warmed by your body heat, so a number of layers is always good. THEN (did you think we had finished? Winter nights are really quite chilly, and the bedroom is COLD, remember), a wool blanket. These are always turning up at op shops, and are brilliantly warm. They are also gorgeous folded up on the end of the bed, and perfect for snuggling under when sneaking away to read in the bedroom during the day. Last of all, when it is really cold, we need to resort to 'the double doona'. Another quilt, this time from the spare bed, is folded up on the end of my bed at the moment for cold night emergencies.

Now, this may seem like a lot of bedding palaver, especially when multiplied by all the beds in the house, but it makes bedtime a sheer joy of toasty cosiness. When I was a little girl I used to love visiting my grandma in the winter because she possessed the secret of making up the cosiest winter beds - heavy with thick blankets and old fashioned bedspreads which felt so wonderfully safe and secure. I think I have now finally managed to replicate that feeling with my current bedding regime:)

So several boxes have been ticked so far this winter - using less electricity. Tick. Making the house more cosy. Tick. Increasing our capacity to live in a world that sometimes gets cold. Outrageous, I know, but in my opinion, so much more satisfying than living in a climate-controlled box. Tick.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Living Better with.. Biochar and Complete Organic Fertiliser

I do feel sorry for the poor people we impose upon ask very nicely to come and talk to us at our Living Better With Less meetings. We all talk so much it must be difficult to get a word in edgewise sometimes (it's because we are so enthusiastic). Luckily, this month, one of our members David, bravely offered to discuss soil health with us (after we asked him very nicely). And he knows us well, so no doubt he came prepared, hopefully with a stiff drink beforehand. He also brought a bottle of his home brew for us to try, probably because he knew he would need a drink afterwards as well... David IS the Inspirations Garden Centre at Exeter, not only a garden centre, but a producer of cool climate seeds, all sorts of wonderful heirloom varieties especially suited for our climate as they are grown here.

So as you can imagine, David has spent a lot of years learning how to make his soil sing, and last month he shared some of his secrets with us. For many years now he has been using Steve Solomon's Complete Organic Fertiliser on his seed trial beds. Steve Solomon is a US garden writer who originally wrote about Gardening West of the Cascades, then moved to Tasmania, where he now gardens in very similar conditions to those west of the Cascades in the US, so that is very many decades of very detailed study and observation of what works in our area of very geologically old soils with high rainfall. Basically what happens is that the few nutrients make it into our old, tired soil get washed away every winter. Think about what happens when you put fertiliser with a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous around a native plant. It dies, or gets very ill. It has evolved over millenia to survive on trace amounts of nutrients, and an overload sends it into shock. This is an indication of how very unsuitable our soils are to grow vegetables, which have been bred to require unnaturally large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and all sorts of other mineral goodies.

I have two of Steve Solomon's books on my shelf - Gardening South of Australia, a self-published volume with very detailed instructions on how to grow just about every vegetable in our climate, and The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Foods, which is the most fiendishly difficult gardening book I have ever read. It contains maths and formulas and hard words. Aargh! But luckily the first half is pretty straightforward. It tells the story of Solomon and his family, happily attempting hippy back-to-the-land self-sufficiency in Oregon. Which they did. Hurrah! BUT then the family's health started to deteriorate. Solomon started losing teeth.. what could be wrong? They were eating a completely healthy organic diet, but not thriving. Then they moved to Fiji, and ate conventionally grown and treated food at the local markets, and their health improved immediately. What was going on? Solomon traced the solution to their new-found health and vitality to the local soils - volcanic, highly mineralised basalt. And on returning to Oregon and turning a critical eye to the composition of the soil there, realised how impoverished it was. No amount of home-made compost and organic mulches were going to solve this problem, only the regular addition of minerals to supplement and replace what was missing.

It was then that Solomon started to develop the Complete Organic Fertiliser that thousands of gardeners now use to supplement their naturally sad soil. Now, when you think of Tasmania you think of lush green pastures and glorious gardens bursting with roses and beautiful vegetables. And yes, this happens. Tasmanian soils are quite high in potassium, which make our plants green and lush, but unfortunately, also quite nutrient deficient. One of the most well-known nutrient deficiencies in Tasmanian soils is iodine. Many older Tasmanians who lived self-sufficient lives on little properties out in the forests, suffered from thyroid problems and goitres. Well, apparently iodine is just the beginning. Our poor old soils can do with a whole lot more help, which is where Solomon's formula for healthy soil comes in.

To be honest, I have never made up any Complete Organic Fertiliser, because some of its ingredients aren't actually available at the local garden centre, and that has been a step too far for me.. I generally add all the ingredients that I do have on hand and hope for the best (yes, I am very scientific) but now I know that David makes it up and sells it, I will certainly be using it.

David also introduced us to biochar. Tasmanian local Frank Strie has introduced it to Tasmanian gardeners and farmers as a way to improve soil structure and sequester carbon. It is a form of charcoal which has been burned in a particular way, which was too highly technical for me to grasp - however it can also be made very simply, with very simple equipment, almost anywhere, which makes it an amendment easily available to anyone who can grasp the technique (clearly that does not include me). It was originally used to improve the fertility of the nutritionally poor soils of the Amazon basin thousands of years ago, and the technique has been recently revived and popularised.

The greatest benefit of biochar to the home gardener is its porous structure, which simultaneously helps to retain water and water soluble nutrients, which is why it is particularly useful in an area of high rainfall, such as ours, when often the nutrients we add to our gardens leach away as fast as we can replace them. Biochar also appears to provide an ideal habitat for beneficial soil micro-organisms and increases nutrient availability to plants.

David did some small field trials using biochar in 2013/2014, and if you scroll down to the bottom of this newsletter you can see the results - the plants grown using a bio-char amendment were bigger, brighter and heavier than their control cousins.

For an excellent summary of all of the above, as well as some excellent links, here is David's 2013 newsletter where he discusses soil health.

Taking advantage of a temporary lull as we were all happily quaffing David's very nice home brew, Michelle showed us a jar of lemon curd she had made - except it wasn't lemon curd, but an excellent lemon cleaner and degreaser which she had whipped up in her Thermomix. The recipe is here, and Michelle uses it to clean her kitchen benches and add to a sink of soapy water to clean particularly greasy dishes. Apparently it is just as useful in the bathroom. I am determined to work out a version for those of us who somehow manage to exist without a Thermomix, and I will of course share how that goes.. although if any of you were to give it a go before I get around to it (highly likely) I would love to hear how you did it:)

Again, a marvellous way to spend a cold Winter's evening, with good friends, excellent conversation and new ideas...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Green and Thrifty

This week I have crocheted a row of the perfect shade of brown around thirty-something granny squares, only one hundred and twenty-something to go. I am so excited about this rug. I am on track to actually finish a craft project. This is momentous!

In other green and thrifty news, Posy has been whining relentlessly about needing a belt, because the one she has had since she was six doesn't fit any more. Fair enough, and today I stepped into an op-shop for five minutes and found her a belt. Which was unused. Which fits her. And which she likes. Wall to wall miracles this week:)

But the big project this week was my own $21 challenge frugal grocery week, where I spent only $21 on milk and vegies, and for the rest 'shopped the pantry' (thanks to Lucinda for that great phrase!). Although I did spend $31 on my original shop, I have not been back to the shops:)

Eating from pantry supplies hasn't been all joyful flitting around in a flowered apron with bluebirds singing though. For some reason I decided to make kidney bean, carrot and cumin burgers. The children warned me this was a very bad idea, but I never listen to them, because they are always moaning about dinner.. but here is the thing. I have never, ever made an edible or delicious pattie/burger or any other food squashed together into a round shape and then fried. So I don't know why I thought I was onto a winner with the kidney beans.. on the bright side, the dog likes them..

Apart from that truly hideous mistake, we have eaten pretty normally - roast chicken, curry, chilli, left-over roast vegie frittata, chicken soup.. tonight the girls have whipped up sushi and rice paper vegie rolls for dinner. But, I have had to think slightly harder - it took me most of one afternoon to work out that I could substitute plain yoghurt for the coconut milk I usually tip in the curry, and I had to protect the roast chicken for two days to have enough left to make sushi. We ran out of dried fruit halfway through the week, and as they are our only sweet treats, we got a bit testy. Nothing sweet in the house!! I have been eating a lot of crisp, sweet fujis straight off the apple tree. Tomorrow we are having friends over to celebrate the Queen's Birthday Holiday, so sweet treats then, we will break out the sugar jar and make something nice:) Apart from that we also ran out of crackers, so I made popcorn for school lunches and sent cheese and vegie sticks along instead. And I ran out of my organic rooibos tea bags. Arrgh! I was forced to pull the loose rooibos out of the back of the cupboard and use a tea ball. However, rooibos is much finer than tea, so it leaks through the holes. I am going to go and spend some money in an actual shop this week and see if I can find a very fine strainer, because truthfully, loose leaf rooibos is much cheaper than the same product in cute little bags.

So, our challenge didn't kill anyone. Which is good. And the challenge to think creatively about food was no doubt good for me. Also we used up a packet of prunes which has been in the back of the cupboard since 2010! My next challenge is to keep within budget this week as I re-stock. Also, wheat free. The Girl and I both have some health issues that may respond to a gluten-free diet. Sigh. We will try it for six weeks and see how we go. My plan is not to use gluten-free flours and expensive products from the gluten-free aisle, just real food, gluten-free. Lots of veg!

Now, did you notice that Bek is upping the $21 challenge week, and going for a $21 challenge month? Pop over and see how she is doing:)

Tomorrow I am planning such a fun day. It is the Queen's Birthday holiday, and I have invited some friends over, with some girls to entertain my girls, and we are going to sit around, eat macaroons, and knit and crochet all afternoon. I am hoping to really polish off a whole bunch of those granny squares..

What has been green and thrifty about your week?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

April and May Accounting

I do not know what I was thinking, embarking on year-long project that has reporting requirements. Who did I think was going to do the reporting? I clearly do not know myself at all. BUT, better late than never (I really hope there is some truth to this adage because it is the one constant in my life).

Here is my account of what I have bought and acquired in the months of April and May (then I will be caught up until July, right?). If you are new here you may be wondering what I am up to - here is a recap:

Why not buy new? In a word, externalities. All of us, my darlings, who can access the intenet on an electronic device, are more or less the 1% of the world's population who benefit unfairly from the sweat, habitat destruction, pollution, ill health, exploitation and death of the 99% whose lives are degraded in some way so that we can have machines to wash our clothes and make our toast, and have access to cheap t-shirts and chocolate.

One day I woke up and the invisible wake of destruction that trails behind my trips to Target suddenly became unbearable, so I have started on a different path to providing for my needs and wants, and those of my lovely children, dog, two cats and two budgies.

Here are my guidelines:

1 Make do with what I have.
2 Try to find what I need second hand - there is a world of stuff out there that needs to be rescued and used again.
3 Buy from a local craftsperson.
4 As a last resort, buy from a local, independent store, so that at least my money stays in my community.. 

How I fared in April and May:

Bought new: Three hot water bottles. Here is an example of impulse buying. I was in the hardware store looking for preserving jar lids because I had run out. They didn't have any in the size I wanted, but right next to them were a stack of adorable Easter-egg pastel coloured hot water bottles (why next to the preserving gear? I can only imagine I was in the designated nana aisle). It was nearly Easter. I wanted to Easter gifts for the girls that were not all about chocolate. So I succumbed, and yes, the hot water bottles are being well-used, but afterwards I realised that home made wheat bags heated in the microwave would have been a much more sustainable choice than rubber, which relies heavily on slave labour in developing countries, replacing food plants as a cash crop. Plus, I boil the kettle for hot water bottles, more electricity. Anyways, in five years' time when these wear out, wheat bags it is.

Various kitchen goodies from the kitchen shop in town, and gifts from the Oxfam shop. Two family members had birthdays, and you know, even though they have birthdays on the same day every year, it was still a surprise. What I bought was sturdy and practical and gorgeous, and mostly not even made in China, but it brought home to me that important thing about how to avoid buying new stuff. Forward planning. Yes, not my forte. 

A hockey skirt for Rosy. One of those unavoidable child-related purchases. Well, avoidable if your child doesn't happen to play hockey, I suppose. 

Tights and socks - after my Ethical Underwear post I ordered the world's most expensive sport socks from my local outdoor goods shop. They were Australian-made cotton and wool Humphrey Laws socks - the most wonderfully comfortable socks in the world. I bought one pair for each of us, and have to pry them off Posy to wash them, she loves them so much. But $17.95 each. Yikes. Still, my hope is they will last a long, long time, as wool socks tend to. Will do a product review in two years' time:) Rosy also needed more grey tights for school. It is very difficult to find a pair of ethically produced grey tights.. eventually I gave up on-line and went to the independent school uniform shop in town, where I was able to buy.. New Zealand-made grey school tights. Happy days:)

Now that Rosy's feet have finally stopped growing (I hope) I bought her a pair of Aussie ugg boots from a shop in town for her birthday. I also bought Rosy two pairs of jeans and a pair of boots from a well-known franchised high street shop in town. What can I say. While she is on board with the whole second-hand thing and has gamely accompanied me to op-shops and second-hand clothes markets this year, sometimes a teenager really just wants some new jeans and boots. This is perfectly ok of course, and I have no wish to impose my project on the children beyond the line at which they want to participate.

Wool - after much deliberation, my friend Jane and I chose the perfect skein of natural New Zealand sheep's wool to crochet all the squares together for my afghan rug project. Yes, it is done, all 160 squares of it, and now my next task is to crochet around each square in the perfect shade of brown, then sew it all together. The only problem was, it wasn't the perfect shade of brown, so we had to go back the next week and swap it. So now it is the perfect shade of brown, and I have crocheted around 26 squares already, many to go. But, the really great news is I visited the little wool shop in town for the first time ever. Usually I go to Spotlight, which is an abomination of a store. Why did I ever go there? Our local yarn shop is adorable, run by a knitting expert, with yarns to die for, and now I'm really inspired to knit socks with merino and possum wool. You can even buy locally knitted socks there - apparently the shop owner has a team of knitters ("mainly stressed executives") who whip up hand-knitted garments to sell. Now there is a truly local sock.

Bought second-hand: um, nothing? I haven't been inside a second hand shop for two months. This is good, because otherwise no doubt I would have bought several more darling jugs, because you can never have too many jugs, right? BUT, I could have done some second-hand birthday shopping if I had been more organised. I will definitely schedule some op-shop visits this month, as I need to organise, well, Christmas..

Gifts from the Universe: After reading my Ethical Undies post in which I mentioned that I don't buy second hand tights and socks, but do give and receive them among friends, my friend Katherine brought me a bag of black tights! She is such a sweetie. Her daughter's school uniform has changed this year, so the black tights are now redundant for her, but perfect for me. I wear black tights to work every day under dresses and skirts with my lovely warm long boots. Winter footwear - thick hiking socks over tights inside long boots = toasty warm feet even in a frosty school playground. This is excellent as my old tights were starting to fall down due to overuse. I was hunting for new ones on-line when Katherine brought me a bag full:)

Returned to the Universe With Thanks: A pile of Rosy's redundant ballet uniform to a friend. Sundry kitchen gear to The Man who is setting up an apartment in a new city. I also asked The Man to take the big flat screen TV away with him, as no-one here except Posy really watches TV much, and I had a hunch she would watch less if the TV experience wasn't quite so exciting. So The Man moved the small TV out of the bedroom into the living room for me, because you know, technology and unplugging things and plugging them back in again etc. I am particularly pleased about this, because I never watched the TV in the bedroom anyway, and it is tiny, and must surely be using less than half the electricity of the big one. Posy does indeed watch very much less telly, but that is possibly because The Man also gave her his old phone, minus the phone function, and she has discovered You Tube. Oh, the funny cats.

Reflections: Most of the real positives of these past two months have been the ways in which I am becoming more comfortable thinking outside the big-box store. One day I invited my friend Jane to come into town with me on errand day, because we both hate doing errands, and if we chat constantly we forget how tedious it is to stand in line at the bank. Anyway, we have been exploring little independent shops, such as the wool shop, and it is so much fun exploring town together instead of rushing straight to Target, which is surely the world's most boring shopping experience.

Plus, buying my way out of a problem has become less of an impulse. I had a day's notice to provide a white shirt for Posy for her flute ensemble performance (you know, as happens with children's announcements). Posy's suggestion was, "We could just go and buy a cheap shirt at Kmart." My response was to phone a friend, then another one until I found a shirt to borrow for the day. I am very proud of myself:)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Frugal Grocery Week

Last night I announced to the girls that our fun activity for this week would be eating out of the fridge and pantry. I am doing pretty well sticking to my grocery budget, or I was, but somehow the totals have crept up in the last few weeks leaving me almost a week over budget with the grocery money. Damn you, organic rooibos teabags and family size blocks of chocolate that were voted 'Most Desired Dessert' several weeks in a row (luckily we only have dessert once a week now, or we would all be waddling).

I do want to make it clear that we are not in any danger of starving to death here, like sad orphans in the snow. The Man is covering all of the children's expenses, and some of mine as well so that I don't have to work a lot while Posy is still at primary school. Still, a budget is a budget is a budget, and unlike the federal government I don't get to work on a deficit, so the food budget is being reined in.

I joined an Australian Savings forum earlier this year, Simple Savings, which is a brilliant site with a million ideas for living better with less (yes, there is a theme in my life this year), and a forum full of amazing people who can do absolutely anything (much like Blueday readers - I was gobsmacked at the range of comments on the my last post - you all make SOAP. And toothpaste. You are all green gods and goddesses). It was there that I met Mimi and Annabel, and also bumped into Lucinda under an alias. You see, all the best people hang out there.

Now, to get to the point of this long-winded story - one of the most popular ideas to come out of Simple Savings is the $21 challenge. The challenge is to only spend $21 on groceries for a week, and for the rest to eat out of the freezer and pantry. And garden, of course. And maybe go visit your mum one night.. only kidding. That would be an expensive night out for me!

So this afternoon I will be popping out to buy milk, yoghurt, and a couple of potatoes. Because we ran out. I do have three pumpkins though, and all the warrigul greens in the world in the garden, and about fifty apples left on the tree. There is flour and some rice, lots of dried beans and lentils, but no chocolate:(

Last night I stewed up some apples for snacks with plain yoghurt and honey, which The Girl took to work today. I also made the last of the roast chicken into soup with chickpeas for the little girls to take for lunch, and made a giant pot of chili which I could happily eat all week, but certain other demanding members of the family will probably require more variety. Yesterday also we ran out of quick oats which the girls use to make their breakfast in the microwave, so I soaked some proper oats last night, and made real three-bears porridge this morning. The Girl and I both liked it better than the quick oats version, Rosy didn't like it, but ate it and Posy refused to try it, so fifty percent success rate with that one - par for the course around here.

There are several things I like about this challenge, which makes it worthwhile even if you are not concerned about your grocery budget (is there such a person?). First, it reduces waste because you have no recourse to that sneaky mid-week 'top-up shop'. Second, it makes you more creative with your cooking and food choices (Vegemite and sardines on toast anyone?). Third, it forces you to try new things (today Posy ate chickpea and chicken soup much against her better judgement, and discovered she likes it!). Fourth, it is great training and role-modelling for any children of the house who will be leaving home and doing it tough as uni students, apprentices, or in first badly-paid jobs and need to know about the budget is a budget is a budget mantra.

Of course, the easiest thing to do on this challenge is resort to flour and sugar, the cheapest calories. I have enough flour and sugar in the house to make every day a riot of cup cakes, pancakes, scones, and an endless parade of bread and jam. BUT, we have cut right back on sugar, and are trying very hard not to eat much in the way of refined flour either, so our fall back position is oats, lentils and dried beans. We have a whole chicken, some mince meat and bacon in the freezer, and providentially, a block of cheese and some eggs. It would be easier if I made up a menu, so I might go and do that now..

While I do that, for any one trying to cook on a budget, I love the recipes on A Girl Called Jack. And the best book for cooking frugally and without waste is Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal. Not a recipe book, but a book which will show you how to cook 'with economy and grace'. Perfect.

Several hours later: well, in between driving back and forth to dancing classes numerous times this afternoon, I popped into the Vegie Shed, where I spent $31 on vegies, milk, eggs and yoghurt. Technically I have already failed the $21 challenge, but as it happens, I am less of a letter of the law, and more of a spirit of the law person, so in the spirit of the $21 challenge, I am about to embark on a week of not spending any more on groceries. Would anyone like to join me?

Updated to add: So Bek has totally upped the ante and is going to do the $21 challenge until the end of June. She is clearly an adventurous soul, but then she also has a magnificent back yard food garden, but then again, it is winter.. why not pop over and see how she is going..