Wednesday, 29 July 2015

How to make a lavender wand

Lavender is in season and I have loads of lovely fragrant lavender growing in my garden right now. There are many uses for lavender, but my current favourite is to make lavender wands. I don't use them for casting spells - I use them to keep my clothes smelling nice (but if you or your kids want to make one for casting spells, don't let me stop you :)).

It is really simple, doesn't take long and they make great gifts! 

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Monday, 27 July 2015

Mmm a nice relaxing bath of cucumbers and courgettes!

Raised beds are a great way to grow vegetables. They keep everything growing where it is meant to be, are easy to maintain and slow the slugs down (a bit). A few years ago my husband made some for our kitchen garden and I asked myself the question of whether it was cost effective to grow veg (read more here and here). It wasn't particularly cost effective the way we did it, but it was cheaper than buying a pre-made raised bed from the shops. Prices vary, but I saw one in my local garden centre for around £70, whereas the wood for the two beds my husband made cost £60. Raised beds might be a good investment if you get years of veg growing out of them, however now I know there is no need to buy a raised bed frame when you can get them for free!

I found a bath being given away on Freecycle earlier on this year and I convinced my husband that we really did need a bath to use as a raised veg bed in our garden. We want to maximise the space we have and grow as much veg as possible, so although we already have some raised beds, we wanted more! He went and picked it up, put it in the back of the car and brought it home. I was a bit unsure about whether the drainage in the bath was good enough with just a plug hole and my husband decided to drill some holes in the bottom of the bath to help with that. We also raised it off the ground on a couple of bricks to allow the water to drain through the holes. 

The bath wasn't particularly attractive in itself. I did think about decorating it a bit but thinking was as far as I got!

Now that we have veg growing in it though, I don't think it needs decorating! 

We have cucumbers! Is it just me or is this one looking rather rude :). 

Courgettes are on their way - not quite big enough to pick yet. The picture makes them look bigger than they are.

We also have some tiny squashes coming through - we think they are butternut squashes. The bath is planted full of random cucumber, squash and courgette plants and we aren't quite sure what they are all going to turn out like yet!

If you are thinking of having a raised veg bed in your garden, although it is too late to plant most things from seed now, you could cheat and get some seedlings or small plants - ask around friends,family, neighbours and online if anyone has any going spare. You could always offer them a trade for something.

Our next project

I also convinced my husband to pick up a divan bed given away on a Facebook giving group a while ago. We were going to rent our spare room to two students at a time, but actually the bed wasn't great - the mattress was rubbish, the whole thing stank of smoke and we changed our minds about having two students at once. We have just stuck with having one student which has worked well for us so far. Anyway, understandably my husband wasn't very impressed with me as he told me it smelt of smoke when he went to pick it and gave me a chance to say no thanks. Plus he had to pick it up from a really awkward to get to flat parking wise, which was up a few flights of stairs. I felt bad about not taking it once we had said we would, and I wasn't there and couldn't judge quite how bad it was. When it came home I realised the error of my ways. I tried to make use of it, but then relegated it to the garage and admitted that actually I didn't want it. Lesson learned though - only take stuff from smoke free homes!

The next plan was to chop it in half and take it to the dump, but when the fabric came off, it looked like this:

A few planks of scrap wood around the edges and maybe some waterproof (yes probably plastic) lining and I think we will have ourselves another upcycled raised veg bed there! Clearly I had that plan in mind the whole time and knew exactly what I was doing (or not :) ) 

Warning - you do have to be careful when using upcycled containers for growing fruit, veg and herbs as some wood is treated with harsh chemicals which may not be food safe. A while ago my husband made a herb planter out of old pallets, but we didn't line it and I was worried about what it might have been treated with so we got rid of it in the end - read more here.

How is your garden growing? Has anyone made a raised bed out of a bath, or an old divan bed or done any other upcycling in the garden? I'd love to hear about your projects!

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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Plastic compromises

We are half way through July and up until now I haven't even mentioned Plastic Free July (PFJ). The idea behind PFJ is to avoid all single use plastic throughout the month. Last year I started preparing for it months in advance and really tried my hardest (for more info about PFJ see here).

Plastic pollutes in so many way. Firstly it is made from fossil fuels, which need to extracted, transformed into plastic and then transported to where they are needed, with all the waste and pollution that goes along with that. Secondly during it's use it may leach unpleasant chemicals into the foods and liquids we cover it with. Finally discarding the plastic causes yet more pollution - fish containing degraded plastic chemicals or exotic islands covered in plastic rubbish and dead animals appeal to anyone? Recycling can help but is not the ideal solution - at some point it will still need to be disposed of.

Given the above, it seems so unnecessary to buy stuff in single use plastic packaging, when in many cases it is so easy to avoid e.g. many foods can be bought unpackaged or in reusable containers and transported home in reusable bags. Taking on a challenge like PFJ is a great motivator towards a reduced plastic lifestyle as many of the changes you make may well stick with you for years to come and I highly recommend it. If you are thinking of taking it on or just want to reduce the amount of single use plastic coming into your home, have a look at the changes I made here, with links to lots of practical information on how I did it.

I am not done with my plastic free journey, it is now a general target that I have in the back of my mind. One day I will work out how to make ketchup that is actually edible from plastic free ingredients and one day I will stop using plastic containers (albeit reusable ones) in my kitchen.

I have accepted though that I can't, OK I choose not to be 100% single use plastic free. I have made compromises, because without them I would make things harder for myself than I would be happy with and I would feel too overwhelmed by the challenge and quit.

Some examples of compromises I have made include:

  1. Most of the time I don't use shampoo or conditioner. I wash my hair just with olive oil bar soap, which comes in cardboard boxes (although I bought them in bulk and the boxes came wrapped in plastic packaging, but let's not talk about that!). I have found though that sometimes the soap doesn't seem to do the job and every so often I use shampoo which sorts this problem out and then I go back to using soap. 
  2. I make yoghurt from milk that I buy in glass bottles once or twice a week. After several batches of yoghurt making though it starts to go a bit wrong - it might be a bit too lumpy or too thin for example. Once a month I buy some yoghurt from the shops in a plastic pot to start a new batch of homemade yoghurt.
  3. I still use dishwasher tablets. I have tried various alternatives - home made versions, shop bought powder and putting vinegar in a cup in the centre of the dishwasher. Nothing cleaned the dishes anywhere near as well as the dishwasher tablets. Does anyone have any better ideas for me? Otherwise I'm sticking with the dishwasher tablets for now.
  4. It can be hard to source all fruit and veg plastic free in one place. Other foods can often be bought in bulk less regularly, but fruit and veg need to be bought fresh each week and it isn't always practical to go to various different places to buy them. I find that the local shops or farmers markets sell cucumbers, grapes, tomatoes and mushrooms unpackaged sometimes, but not all the time. Plus plastic isn't the only consideration when it comes to food. In an ideal world all food being sold would be fair trade, organic, local and plastic free. At the moment I buy fruit and veg from Abel and Cole. The food is organic, fair trade and British (where possible). It isn't really local though and although a lot of the food comes loose in a cardboard box, some foods come packaged in plastic bags or plastic punnets.
  5. Although I make our food from scratch from unpackaged ingredients the majority of the time, I don't do it all the time. I know my limits and let myself buy some packaged foods occasionally that I could make myself e.g. chips. They are the exception rather than the rule though.
  6. Lastly some things I can't currently source plastic free and it either isn't practical or I haven't worked out how, to make or grow them myself. Things like medicines, crisps and tomato ketchup. 
There are a lot of changes that individuals can make to become zero waste and plastic free, but there comes a point where businesses need to make changes to the way they package their products. I can try my hardest to avoid single use plastic, but if I am in a rush to go somewhere and don't have all the food and drink I need with me, I may well find the only things available to me come in plastic packaging. Plus as I mentioned before, some things are very difficult to source without plastic packaging and even if they are available they may not be easy to get hold of when you actually need them.

The problems of plastic packaging are huge, however I think it is really important to be positive about any changes made for the better. In our current environment going plastic free is at times an uphill struggle, so I'm not going to beat myself up about my current imperfectly plastic free life, I am just going to feel happy about the changes I have made and continue to improve at a slow and steady pace. Also in the meantime, I feel incredibly grateful that I have the luxury of easy access to a wide range of foods and medicines albeit plastic packaged at times that many people in many parts of the world do not.

Which small changes could you make to reduce the single use plastic in your life this July? Could you even take on the Plastic Free July challenge - it doesn't have to only happen in July - any month will do! Let's all work together to be part of the solution and not the problem!

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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Making bread the zero waste plastic free way!

I make bread and pizza dough most weeks around once or twice a week. The great thing about making your own is that it doesn't come in a plastic bag! Some of the ingredients might though, but I have managed to source most of them plastic free (with the exception of yeast and the plastic in the lid of a glass bottle of olive oil if olive oil is used) - salt in a cardboard box, butter in a paper wrapper, flour in paper bags, eggs on egg carton trays and so on. 

I have a bread maker but for a while it was broken (we had to get a replacement part, which we now have but it took us ages to get around to doing it). In the meantime I started making my bread by hand and realised that actually as I was home anyway most of the time I didn't really need the bread maker to make dough.  It only takes 5-10 minutes to knead the dough and it is good exercise!

Most recipes for making dough without a bread maker include the instruction to put some clingfilm loosely over the dough when it is rising. However there is absolutely no need to use this wasteful product. Even if it says biodegradable on the packet, it is still something that is intended to be used once and then chucked, which is a total waste. Plus biodegradable does not necessarily mean it will break down easily on your home compost heap - it could take months or even years!

A bread maker does not use clingfilm when the dough is rising and the reason for this is that bread makers have lids on them. Not everyone has a bread maker though (or wants to use one) and any container with a lid or even something rested over it like a plate which has enough room for the dough to rise will do really!  I could have even put my dough in the bread maker to rise without the power turned on.

Dough loves being warm and will rise more if it is warm (although you don't want to let it get too warm). I have found that putting my dough in a large bowl in a freezer bag (making sure there is lots of space between the dough and the top of the freezer bag), then putting the zipped up freezer bag in a warm room (a warm cupboard will also do) works really well. We have a small south facing conservatory (really a clothes drying room) which is perfect for this! I do this because if I try to rise dough in my kitchen it is often too cold in the winter and too breezy in the summer as external doors and windows are open. If you are in a hot country though a freezer bag may not be the best solution!

After I have let my dough rise I shape it as I want it, put it on a pizza stone or in a stoneware loaf pan and put it back in the freezer bag to rise again or 'prove' as the professionals would say! I love stoneware - it is naturally non-stick once seasoned, so there is no need for baking paper and it is perfect for baking bread on! If you don't have a freezer bag, don't worry there are loads of ways to make what is essentially a thermal or heat retention cooker from things you already have - read more here.

You can also use a wet towel over your dough, but you will have to wash the towel afterwards. If you use an insulated box or bag or other contraption, then you won't have any extra washing up other than the bowl the dough is in (which you would have had to wash up anyway).  

I once tried using a shower cap to cover the dough, but then I realised it wasn't food safe (read more here) and although I considered buying some food safe elasticated covers I never did. I already have the freezer bags and they provide the extra insulation, so I decided there was no point spending money and wasting resources on something I don't need!

If you are only cooking one loaf of bread, then a bread maker is going to be a more energy efficient way of doing it than using a whole oven, so the trick is if you don't have a bread maker, to cook it at the same time as using the oven to cook other things. Plus in my house we have solar panels, so I try to time it when the sun is shining! I have read that you can also cook bread in a thermal cooker or slow cooker, but it won't be quite like bread cooked in an oven and it is not something I have tried.

Once the bread is made I store it in a reusable bread bag, but there are a range of options for storing bread. I saw a lovely ceramic bread pot with a lid at a car boot sale on the weekend - it was a bit too big and bulky for my kitchen though!

I have to admit though that we do still buy bread in plastic bags as a certain member of my family prefers it to my home cooked version and because he is the only one who eats bread every day at the moment. Home made bread doesn't stay fresh for long so I would end up making it every day and having bread going to waste every day, which isn't a great solution. Anyone got any good suggestions for me? What do you do in your household in relation to bread?

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