Cupboard love

Just a very quick post to share my delight at this:

IMGP3761It isn’t finished yet – there will be bookshelves at the far end and an edging where it meets the wall, but this afternoon I will be able to start filling it with preserved food and preserving equipment.

It has been great to support a local craftsman who is just getting his business started. He sourced the wood from a sawmill nearby, so that was another local business supported. This is how we build strong and sustainable communities… not to mention strong and sustainable cupboards!

Blog hop

Many thanks (I think) to Kate Chiconi for nominating me to take part in this blog hop… aimed at introducing you to new blogs written by lovely creative people. Kate’s blog Tall Tales from Chiconia allows me to drool over wonderful (mainly quilted) creations that I would never make myself (having a love-hate relationship with my sewing machine).

Whilst I’m at it, I should also acknowledge that two other people asked me to participate in this blog hop – Jenny of Simply Hooked asked me a few weeks ago and her request somehow disappeared in a flurry of other things so that, by the time I realised I needed to reply, it was too late (sorry Jenny); and Wendy at Quarter Acre Lifestyle, who was pipped to the post because she asked me about two days after Kate! Anyway, go visit their sites too!!

The way this works is that there are a few questions to answer and then I point you in the direction of another couple of lovely creative blogs to check out, so here goes…

What am I working on?

It’s probably easiest to show you…

There’s lots of food and garden creativity too, which is on-going…

Currently, I am getting VERY creative with these:

The weight is in kilos not pounds

The weight is in kilos not pounds

And, at Denmark Farm, a whole group of us are getting creative to raise funds to support the work of the charity and keep the nature reserve open:

How does my work differ from that of others?

Well, apparently there are only a limited number of crafters who make mushrooms, bacteria, molluscs and the like! In addition, I do like to support local businesses (yarn shops and producers) and I try to buy British wool as much as possible. I also like to be as green as I can, so reusing, recycling and selecting ‘green’ yarn is important to me. I have spent quite a bit of time looking into the ethics of knitting yarns and continue to look for good options, although I know that I don’t always succeed.

In my life in general I try to be thoughtful about the resources I use and that’s reflected in my gardening – I like food metres rather than food miles whenever possible and I try to use the things I have creatively – hence a gate from a pallet, growing plants up an old rotary drier, planting seeds in old toilet roll middles etc. I’m certainly not alone in this sort of approach, but I do talk and write about it more than most people!

Why do I create what I do?

Because I’d go bonkers if I didn’t… I know some of you think I’m bonkers already, so just imagine how much worse I would be if I didn’t make all this stuff! Lots of folks I know tell me of the value of mediation (and medication), but frankly creating things is what works for me if I want relaxation or thinking time. What I think of as classic relaxation always feels like this to me:

Now, isn’t a spot of crochet much better than that?

Oh, and hand-knitted socks last so much longer and are so much more fun than bought ones!

And, I want to save the planet!

How does my creative process work?

I start doing about a million different things and then just pick up what I feel like when the mood takes me. This is why I’m not very keen on undertaking commissions… I just never want to do something that I have to do! It all works out in the end for me.

In the garden I do what needs doing plus whatever I feel like… as I said, I don’t like to feel obliged to do anything.

And now for my recommendations… two very different blogs, but both inspiring and both written by good friends of mine.

First is Katy the Night Owl’s blog about her crochet creations. Katy and I met through blogging and then discovered that we live about 500m away from each other. However, because Katy is mostly house-bound we would never have met without the technology. She’s currently helping me to make a dent in the great courgette mountain!

Second is Karen’s beautiful and poignant blog Sweet Baby Veg… full of amazing recipes and lovely pictures of Karen’s garden… I can only dream of a garden oasis as beautiful as the one she has created.

Katy and Karen will be posting their blog hop contributions next Monday, 4 August.

Gone but not forgotten

The route to so many interesting people.

The route to so many interesting people…. who are easy to lose

A few months ago I wrote a post expressing my sadness at the disappearance of a blog that I liked to read – The Great Dorset Vegetable Experiment. I was saddened that Yambean had decided not only to give up blogging when she and her husband sold their worldly goods and set off on a new adventure in their life, but that she deleted the entire blog. Still, at least I knew of her plans to travel and can imagine her having a  great time in warmer climes.

Yesterday, however, I assimilated the fact that another great blog had disappeared, but this one without warning. Lovely Lonnie, The Belmont Rooster, has taken his blog down and disappeared from our community without warning. What a shame – he had a huge array of information about plants and their cultivation and wrote interesting posts on gardening, farming and community. I really hope that he’s alright, perhaps busy turning all his information into a book. If you are reading this Lonnie, I do wish you well and hope you decide to start blogging again in the future.

So, this is a repeat of my previous request… if you do decide to give up blogging, do consider leaving your blog up – perhaps with a message saying that it’s currently not active. And remember that, although we have never met, we are friends, we care about you and we will miss you if you go away.

Coming around again

Whilst it’s easy to think about adopting a siege mentality when considering the challenges we might face as human beings, building communities and sharing might, in fact, be a more sustainable option. Often, when people discover permaculture, they feel that the answer to reducing their ecological impact is to find some land, shut themselves away and become self-sufficient. Quite often, as time goes on they realise that this isn’t a viable way forward… what if they get sick? what will happen when they are too old to support themselves? is it possible to be self-sufficient in all respects… heat? clothes? health care? And frequently the conclusion is that we cannot completely isolate ourselves, and some goods and services need to be sourced externally.

No one is an island!

No one is an island!

Indeed, human beings are inherently sociable – we have lived in communities throughout history. Perhaps today, though, the spaces that we find ourselves in are generally too full and we are overwhelmed by numbers, leading us once more to adopt that siege mentality: to close our front doors and isolate ourselves from our neighbours, obtaining all our goods and services from corporations, with which we have no chance to develop any relationship other than a financial one.

Here in the UK at the moment, many people are struggling though the snow (not here on the coast of west Wales, but we seem to be the exception). It’s at times like these that you might wish to be part of a community – whether it be to help with shovelling snow, jump-starting the car, sharing food or simply knowing you have  friend close at hand. Now is a good time to start building those links if they don’t already exist – what could be more welcome than a call from a neighbour to check that you are ok and don’t need any help? And once you’ve made that connection in a time of adversity, it’s likely to carry through into the good times. Offering help now is likely to pay off later… even if only in the form of a cheery hello in the future.

A bonus from the hen holiday

A bonus from the hen holiday

The links that we make with other people can lead to unexpected benefits. Whilst we were on holiday, our hens could not be cared for as usual by our neighbours (they were away too and their absence was prolonged because of a funeral), so our girls went to stay with some friends about 25 miles away. These friends also have hens, but theirs are rescued ex-battery chickens that are somewhat less robust than our locally bred outdoor lot. As a result, they had mostly stopped laying over the winter. Our girls (apart from Lorna who rarely bothers) were still producing, so were able to pay their rent whilst visiting! And, strangely, when ours returned home, the ex-batts started laying too… perhaps there was some sort of pheromone thing going on. Clearly a mutually beneficial relationship, but it didn’t end there. When I went to collect our hens, I was presented with a bag of knitting wool goodies – lots of balls of fine gauge wool that my friend had got in a big bag of mixed gauges from Freecycle. She wanted the thicker wool in the batch, but had no use for the fine stuff. I would never have thought to look on Freecycle for wool and would have missed out on this lovely resource to use for my Beekeeper’s Quilt project. Because she knew I would use the fine wool, my friend was able to accept the whole offering and know that none of it would go to waste. Everyone was happy, and there is more ‘stuff’ that has been prevented from going to landfill.

So, building relationships enriches my life, both emotionally and materially. My community of friends is not, however, exclusively built of people who live close to me. I use technology to keep in touch with people around the globe and even those a long way away can enrich my life, and people who I only see rarely are still important to me.

Janta, Merav and the course participants in the summer of 2012

Janta, Merav and the course participants in the summer of 2012

Whilst teaching I meet people from all over the place… and it is one group of such people who have been on my mind recently. These are the lovely Wheelhouse family at Karuna… a fabulous forest garden project in Shropshire who hosted a course that I taught last summer. They currently need help – they have finally gained permission to build a straw-bale roundhouse to function as living space and office. Sadly, their fundraising campaign has gone slowly… and with only a few more days to go, they are some way off their target. This project is close to my heart, first because it deserves to succeed so that Karuna can continue to flourish, but also because there is a significant ‘people care aspect’. You see, Merav Wheelhouse has Huntington’s disease – an inherited condition leading to progressive deterioration of the nerve cells in the brain. There is no cure and no way of slowing the symptoms, which include problems with feeding, movement, behaviour and  communication. In the past, the Wheelhouses have been understandably reticent to highlight this issue, but Janta has mentioned it in his latest blog, and so I feel able to write about it a little. Although I only met Janta and Merav last year for a few days, their situation has moved me greatly. And so, I mention them as part of my network of friends, but also as good people who are treading very lightly on the earth and deserve wider support. If you would also like to support them, you can donate here and if you do, you have my sincere thanks, a warm glow and the knowledge that what goes around comes around!

Detroit – from Motown to Grotown*

A couple of years ago I watched a programme on the BBC entitled Requiem for Detroit? Sadly, it’s no longer available to view, but it really opened my eyes to how a city can change. Detroit was the ‘Motor City’ – original home of the Ford Motor Company along with numerous other automobile manufacturers – but its population fell significantly with the decline in manufacturing, leaving a large urban area with a relatively sparse population and many empty factories, homes and other buildings. Schools closed down and their playing fields were left to return to prairie, along with other areas of open ground. City services are stretched because of the sparse population in some areas and the reduction in tax revenue as a result.

You’d hardly know this if you look at the Wikipedia entry for the city, which highlights its history and regeneration (at least when I looked at it on 16 August 2012) and appears to have been written for the purposes of marketing. There are a brief references to the depopulation:

The city has numerous neighborhoods consisting of vacant properties resulting in low inhabited density in those areas, stretching city services and infrastructure. These neighborhoods are concentrated in the northeast and on the city’s fringes

going on to say that the…

low density creates a strain on the city’s infrastructure. To remedy this, a number of solutions have been proposed including resident relocation from more sparsely populated neighborhoods and converting unused space to agricultural use, though the city expects to be in the planning stages for up to another two years

This latter quote seems to be the only mention of agriculture in the whole article, which is strange considering that if you Google ‘Detroit urban farm’ you will find a multitude of websites describing what is going on in the city. And this is really what interests me. Detroit seems to be turning into a model of what can happen in a city subjected to economic decline. Individuals and communities are taking matters into their own hands and creating gardens and urban farms to supply themselves and other residents with fresh food. A range of projects – Georgia Street Community Garden, Earthworks, SEED Wayne, DBCFSN amongst others – are up and running. Many of them choosing to grow organic produce and, it appears, committed to using only plots where the soil has been tested to ensure the absence of toxic substances. There are some commercial operations, but many are community gardens – more per square mile or per capita than in any other city in the US according to a metrotimes story.

This success, according to the Harvard Law and Policy Review  may not be legal. I have commented briefly before about US zoning laws and their impact on urban food growers, but the scale of things in Detroit has forced the authorities to start thinking about their zoning policies. It appears that gardens are allowed but not farms, and with the scale of some community projects it’s difficult to draw a line between them, especially since some call themselves farms and others gardens. Just a couple of months ago, however, Michigan State University launched a research project, the snappily named MetroFoodPlus Innovation Cluster @ Detroit program. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the mayor of Detroit and the MSU president. In the short-term, according to the Wall Street Journal, this might allow the zoning issues to be circumvented because research projects are exempt.

All-in-all it’s a fascinating situation. I have never visited Detroit, but I’d really like to hear if anyone else has. It’s hard to gauge from all the articles I’ve read how extensive the food-growing is in the city and what difference it is making to communities. The film Urban Roots, provides an insight into some of the activities, but the perspective is that of the growers… I wonder how others in the city perceive these developments?

I shall watch developments with interest… perhaps I’ll even get to visit one day.

-oOOo-

* Shamelessly lifted from the film Urban Roots, 2010, The Tree Media Group

In suburbia

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
—  Edmund Burke

I often hear people bemoaning their lack of land and citing this as a reason that they don’t grow their own food. I, myself, yearn for a greater area to cultivate, but this is not going to stop me making the most of what I do have. And, to some extent, we all have the potential to grow something, be it a pot of basil on the kitchen window sill, a few tomato plants in a grow-bag on a balcony or a garden full of a variety of produce.

It’s easy to focus on what we haven’t got, rather than what we have. For some time Mr Snail-of-happiness and I have been looking out for a piece of land to buy that we can turn into a forest garden, but we haven’t been able to find anything that is both suitable and sensibly priced. Earlier this year I started to realise that my desire for land was distracting me from optimising the area around the house. I do have a productive garden but, as I described in my ‘Waste of space‘ post, I still had plenty more space that I wasn’t using. I’ve also go a small front garden that I have my eye on and, fortunately, can convert into a productive area without fear of a battle with the local council (unlike some places in the US).

Having harvested more than 10kg of potatoes from an area less than 1.5myesterday, I can confirm that even a small patch of land can contribute significantly to our food needs. Even this year, with the terrible summer weather here in the UK, we have still eaten food from the garden pretty much every day; mainly potatoes, lettuce and eggs over the last few weeks, but we’ve also had a few peppers and chillies plus lots of raspberries and rhubarb and now a few blue berries. Oh, and eight mangetout pods on Saturday! There is no way that we could be self-sufficient, but we can make a difference. What if everybody grew a bit of their own food? First, it would provide us with a connection to what we eat in a way that going to the supermarket never can and, second, it would go some way to improving the environment. It’s also a good way of building relationships with your neighbours – Mr and Mrs Next-door love to receive eggs. They used to keep chickens themselves but they are in their 80s now and don’t feel able to (although they still grow a few vegetables), so fresh eggs are always appreciated and, in return, they take care of the girls when we go away.

Many of us in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the world live in what could be described as suburbia… you may think of it as a social and cultural wasteland, but look again. Look at all that land – all those gardens that currently support a lawn, three hydrangeas and some bedding plants. Image what your neighbourhood would be like if everyone had some fruit and vegetables growing in their garden; if there were enough apple trees for the crop to be shared, so that no one ever needed to buy another apple again. Imagine what it would be like if the folks who were not able to garden let others do the job in exchange for shares of the produce from their land. Imagine a community, where there was always a neighbour willing to feed your small flock of chickens whilst you were away, or go round and water your plants, or help with a job you couldn’t manage yourself. This is a reality that can be achieved in the suburbs – people have useable land and the potential to build communities; there are hidden skills and opportunities and now seems like a good time to take advantage of these possibilities.

David Holmgren, one of the originators of permaculture, is particularly keen on the idea, in an article entitled  Retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability  (really worth a read) he writes: “The bottom line here is that we do not need to wait for policies to change. We can choose today to do this – to create our own small neighbourhoods. ‘Suburban sprawl’ in fact gives us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients…”

So, what are you waiting for? Change the world starting with your own back yard (and your own front yard if local ordinances allow)!

Money, money, money

I used to have a ‘real’ job: I went to work every day and somebody paid me a salary at the end of the month. My contract came to an end and I could have applied for a permanent job, but I didn’t want to carry on in that particular role, so I didn’t bother. After a brief break a friend rang me up and asked if I was available… I said yes and, after an interview, I was offered a job that involved working three days per week. This seemed like a good idea as I already had a bit of freelance copy-editing coming in and I was doing a bit of teaching adults for the local university’s lifelong learning department. That job got made permanent and I got fed up with it so I moved to a new post – two and a half days a week – continuing to copy-edit and teach plus taking on other editing. I managed that for six years before I decided that life was too short to spend two and a half days a week doing a managerial job that I no longer enjoyed, so I resigned. Four years down the line I have a lot less money, a wardrobe full of clothes I never wear and a much more productive garden. No regrets.

Since I have less money I probably think more carefully about what I want to spend it on. This is not to say that we are short of money, it’s just that I think I value it more now than I used to. I spend a lot less these days because I rarely have lunch out, or buy a cup of coffee, or go and buy something because I’m feeling stressed and I no longer have the bus fare or petrol to pay for to get me to work (although I have worn out quite a few pairs of slippers in the last few years). But when I do buy things I want to get a good product and I want my money to do good… so my coffee is fair trade, my meat is organic and my electricity supply is green, but this is only part of the picture. What I want to do is support my local community and my local economy. I want to spend money within the local economy as much as I can. There is good evidence demonstrating the value to your community of spending your money with local businesses – more people in your area benefit from it and it makes your community financially more robust. It also encourages more local production, which has great benefits as, for example, oil prices rise and the cost of transporting goods goes up. There is loads of information about this… look at the work of The New Economics Foundation, for example. Just type ‘local economy’ into their search and you will find all sorts of information, not to mention free publications to download.

We are lucky here in west Wales – there are lots of local food producers, one of the best farm shops in the country, many small businesses on the high streets, lots of local crafts-people, a local flour mill and great places to eat. There are great opportunities to support our local economy and thus our local community. I’m not saying that I never shop in a supermarket or on-line, but many of my purchases do support local shop keepers and/or producers and I hope that my money is going round and round in the local economy and doing lots of good before finally moving out of the area.

I have a cunning plan…

… a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel (thanks Blackadder)… at least I don’t have it yet, but I will one day.

And what is my plan for? Well, everything really – I am hoping to have a mosaic of permaculture designs to apply to various aspects of my (sustainable) life and, together they will constitute my PLAN.

I told a friend this a while ago and the response was ‘permaculture is gardening fascism’! Well, not the variety that I have encountered. To me permaculture is whole systems design – emulating patterns from nature in human systems to make them efficient and self-sustaining. This appeals to me because, by training, I’m an ecologist – I have a PhD in land reclamation, which involved studying the re-creation of vegetation systems on restored open cast coal sites. I am fascinated by looking at natural relationships and seeing how these can be applied to physical and social systems created by people. For me, the easiest way to think about this sort of design is in my garden, because I understand the value and function of things like soil structure, micro-organisms, micro-climate, water, pollinators, decomposers and vegetation. But I am increasingly intrigued about how I can apply systems-level thinking to other aspects of my life: starting a new business, working with other people, designing a course for adult learners…

Now, I have to confess that I work best when there are targets and deadlines and a ‘reward’ at the end. All of my working life these days involves relatively short tasks that I am paid for. So when I edit a scientific paper, I know that the ‘reward’ will be a payment of £XX and that the work will be completed in just a few days. Perfect for me. However, planning my life doesn’t involve specific deadlines and prompt payback (well, it might, but only in certain circumstances) so I needed to find an approach that would help me to get on and make plans. I have, therefore, taken the plunge and registered to do a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design… this requires me to produce 10 permaculture-based designs over the next two years. I have a tutor to guide me, but I can choose whatever designs I like; so, I’m going to take the opportunity to focus on various aspects of my life and actually come up with some real plans… rather than just vaguely thinking about ‘stuff’ as I seem to have been doing over recent years. This may not be the way forward for lots of people, but it’s ideal for me – a structure, with a reward at the end (I love qualifications… I have loads of them!) and some support along the way.

I had my first tutorial last week – it was great – and I drafted the first version of my first design over the weekend – that was fun too. I think that I am probably a learning junkie!

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