Four years of successes and failures

Today, WordPress informs me, is my anniversary – four years since I started this blog. I’m not sure what I expected at the beginning, but it has certainly provided me with a good record of certain aspects of my life over the past few years. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to look back over old posts to see what I got up to and to reflect on what worked and what didn’t…

One of my very early posts (in the days before I knew how important pictures are) was about the magic of compost. I described making it from “vegetable peelings, teabags (unbleached), cotton rags, willow and paper shreddings, leaves, chicken poo and more”. Well, I’m still making compost, but the teabags have been ditched in favour of loose tea leaves, so that can surely be chalked up as a continuing success.


The radio four years ago… it’s much scruffier now

In May 2012 I wrote about our solar/wind-up radio and all the repairs it had undergone. The only person who “liked” the post was Mr Snail and he was the one who had done all the hard work. Over the years I’ve I’ve mentioned it in several other posts, and Mr Snail wrote about one of its repairs in detail. It’s still going strong, although looking very dilapidated now and faded because of its time on the kitchen windowsill. I consider any repairs that extend the life of an object to be a big success and this is something that it would have been all too easy simply to throw out and replace with a new version.

Back in June 2012 I wrote my first post about decluttering. Well, clearly I have failed on that count because I’m still at it! When I think about it, over the years I have managed to get rid of lots of unwanted STUFF, but it still feels like I have only scratched the surface. At least my new approach of making sure there are no net gains will prevent it getting worse, but I am determined to continue with the idea of shedding at least one thing every day…I’ll come to today’s shed a bit later. I’m currently writing in my diary every day what I have got rid of which is at least giving me a sense that I am achieving something.

At a time of very limited readership, probably my most popular post was written in September 2012 and was entitled “21st Century Womble“. When I think about it, this post probably sums up much of what I have subsequently written about – repair, reuse, converting other people’s junk into something I value and generally treading more lightly on the plant. If I hadn’t come up with the name “The Snail of Happiness” (you can read the story of that here) I may well have entitled this blog 21st Century Womble.


They look good but they really don’t taste of anything – and they are a real pain to prepare

Throughout my time blogging I have written about my garden. In the summer of 2013 I addressed the question of whether it’s worth growing potatoes. My resounding answer (much to my own surprise) was “yes” – to reduce food miles, produce a really useful crop and so you know exactly what chemicals you’re being exposed to. In fact, it was at this time that I was thinking very carefully about what to grow… and concluding that what I should plant is things we like and that I know we will eat. Experimental crops are all very well, but are of little value if they just end up on the compost heap! So, no more salsify and oca, I’m sticking to potatoes, lettuce, peppers, courgettes, squashes, chillies, beans, herbs, parsnip and leaks… the ‘different’ things are just for fun. And on that note… whilst sharks’ fin melons are easy to grow and produce a huge crop, they don’t taste of anything, so I’m never going to bother with them again.


Arthur went to New Zealand in exchange for some some fabulous art

In the autumn of 2013 I wrote my first post about bartering. Over the years I’ve managed some very satisfactory swaps. I’m particularly pleased to own two of Pauline’s wonderful creations, which were exchanged for Arthur the dragon and another bundle of crochet goodies, including two hedgehogs. Every day I look at the picture “Grow where you are planted” and my light catcher and I smile. I love the sort of connections I have made this way but, sadly, bartering has turned out to be difficult. I’ve never successfully exchanged professional services (teaching, editing or ecological consultancy) for goods or services – everyone understands money and so it’s the preferred method. I will keep trying, but apart from some wonderful exceptions I can’t classify my bartering as a success.


No longer refusing to darn

I have written a number of times about sewing (here, for example)… I keep returning to it, but I really have to confess that I don’t like making my own clothes. Other things I’m not so bad with… shopping bags and sock toys to name a couple… but not clothes. Time to accept it and stick to knitting and crochet I think! On the plus side, though, I’m coming to terms with mending and darning, in particular, is much less of a chore than it used to be. And, as I mentioned the other day, I’ve even managed to patch Mr Snail’s gardening jeans… a job I especially used to detest.

One project that has been a failure, despite initial high hopes, has been raising mealworms to feed to the hens. I have, over nearly two years, managed to maintain a colony of mealworms, but I have never managed to bulk up the population sufficiently to have enough to use as chicken feed. The whole thing has come to feel as if I am actually keeping the creatures for their own sake. And so, today’s ‘shed’ was, finally, to admit defeat. The hens made a good meal of the colony and I feel a great relief that I no longer have to try to make this experiment work. It’s good to try things out, but it’s also good to know when to let go.

So, that’s just a few of my adventures over the past four years. Writing this blog has yielded friendships, provided inspiration, served as a record what I’ve been up to and opened me up a whole community of like-minded people. There has been amazing kindness – the Masterpiece blanket being a particular example – and solace when I have been feeling blue. So thank you everyone! I hope you will keep visiting for another year.





The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that I have changed the tagline that appears in the header on every page. It used to say ‘small steps to sustainability’ because documenting such steps was the original aim of my writing. However, I have come to realise that, because of the way things have evolved, that isn’t exactly a great description of what I write about now. Over the past three years I have become increasingly aware that what I want is a kinder world – one where we care for the environment and for each other. That’s not to say that I don’t think sustainability isn’t an important part of it, just that I want to emphasise the broader goal. Originally I was going to change the words to ‘small steps to a better world’, but on consideration, I think ‘kinder’ is more appropriate for my current goals.

So, what have I done on the kindness front recently?

One ready for stuffing and another on the needles

One ready for stuffing and another on the needles

Well, there’s the knockering  of course. I’m currently signed up to make five of them and I’ve just ordered some more soft cotton yarn, which is what they are made of.

I’ve agreed to have a #chumbrella to trial. This means I’ll be going out into the world with the aim of offering to share my ‘dry space’ with anyone who wants to. I plan to take it to the International Permaculture Convergence in September and share it with the world!

I’ve been kind to myself by giving myself plenty of time to think about an offer of some possible work. I’m not sure that I want to jump “out of the frying pan into the fire” as far as teaching is concerned, so I’m going to think very carefully about what I take on and where I go from here.

Not sure which one was responsible... I have grovelled to Peter the builder

Not sure which one was responsible… I have grovelled to Peter the builder

I’ve been kind to builders… making lots of tea and ensuring that they are happy to be here (despite a ‘paw marks in cement’ incident earlier today).

And I’ve done some ethical shopping, nothing frivilous: loose tea and coffee transported home in our own containers; a visit to the local farm shop; and I’ve ordered some replacement bamboo water filters (no plastic in those).

So, how have you been kind this week?

This is what it looks like

Some years ago there was a BBC television programme called It’s not easy being green. Whilst it included some interesting things, it used to annoy the hell out of  me and Mr Snail, mainly because of the title. What better way to put people off trying to be more ‘green’ than by telling them that it’s difficult?

So, I want to share some images of what you can do to ‘be green’ that is not only easy, but fun, delicious, empowering, enjoyable, sociable and good for the planet. Let’s not wallow in the negativity; let’s not believe that the only people who can make a difference are rich or famous or in charge of big corporations. Let’s remember that we are all well-connected, because we are all connected with each other.

So, here are some of the ways that I have been green over the past few years.

I’ve been making my garden productive:

I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is and supporting local producers and installers as well as companies who recycle:

I’ve been reducing packaging, especially single-use plastic:

I’ve been cooking delicious food with simple ingredients:

I’ve been creative – resuing, recycling repairing and repurposing:

And, not forgetting to share your ideas:

So, why not give being green a go? You might enjoy yourself!

The game of the name

I’m very conscious about the effects of language – choose one word rather than another and you can change the whole tone of a sentence. But it’s more than that, by naming objects or ideas in particular ways, we give them a label that can have very deep connotations. It’s often said that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, and it is true that language is a powerful tool for changing hearts and minds. Because of this I was very taken with a word my friend Katie used several times recently – petrol.

As you know, I’m very keen to promote the use of local and renewable resources in order to make our lives more sustainable and protect our planet. One of the biggest problems is our reliance on petrochemicals: our lives are filled with all sorts of products produced from oil that we don’t really notice. We’ve all been told about the issues associated with vehicle fuel – petrol and diesel – and we know that burning oil and coal and gas contributes to all sorts of environmental problems, but petrochemicals fill our lives. As you read this, you are probably wearing them (manmade fibres) and looking at them (your computer). You may have washed your hair with them this morning, smeared them on your face, eaten off them, prepared food on them, cleaned your teeth with them… the list goes on. And whilst their presence may be obvious (to some) in plastics, they are also hidden in things like juice cartons (which appear to be made of cardboard) and books (the covers are often coated with oil-based varnish).

Balls of reclaimed petrol!

Balls of reclaimed petrol!

So what do we do? Well, being aware is the first step – no one takes action if they don’t know a problem exists. And this is where naming comes in and where Katie has hit the nail on the head. She has taken to referring to petrochemical products as ‘petrol’. So, when using acrylic yarn, she says she’s ‘knitting with petrol’ and when we saw a farmer spreading inorganic fertilizer she said he was ‘throwing petrol on his land’. And as she talked I realised how effective it was. If, every time we bought food wrapped in plastic rather than paper or sprayed chemical fertilizer on our vegetables rather than digging in compost or using homemade liquid feed, we said ‘I’m wrapping my food in petrol’ or ‘I’m putting petrol on the garden’ would that change out attitude?

I know it’s not exactly accurate terminology, but it makes you think… if we could try to swap at least some of out ‘petrol’ for something renewable, we could make our lives much, much more sustainable.

Jacob’s hoody

I wasn’t going to post today as I’m working on my Masterpiece scrapbook (photos in a later post), but I have started a new knitting project that I just wanted to share. For years I have been wearing three fleece tops (no, not all at the same time) that I bought in New Hampshire. Sadly, I’ve recently noticed that they are going bald… yes I have actually worn them out! So, I thought that I would knit myself a lovely warm hoody out of British yarn. I selected Jacob wool from Blacker yarns and  one of their patterns that uses two strands of wool together to give a tweed effect. I’m really pleased with it so far:

Light grey and cream strands knitted together for warmth and a nice mottled effect

Light grey and cream strands knitted together for warmth and a nice mottled effect

Hung out to dry

Socks and other things drying indoors

Two hobbies combined: knitted socks and gardening

It will not surprise you that I don’t have a tumble-drier. Environmentally they are not a great choice and even here in soggy Wales I mostly manage to dry my washing outside. Currently we are having to make do with hanging washing on the clothes horse as our rotary drier collapsed the other day. We always hang small items on a contraption involving spokes and pegs and this was in use, hanging from a curtain pole in the kitchen, the other day, providing a nice display of hand knitted socks when I realised its potential for another drying role.

January harvest from the unheated greenhouse

January harvest from the unheated greenhouse

Earlier in the day I had ventured out to our flooded greenhouse an picked the last (possibly) of the ripe chillies. It may have been wet this winter, but it has not been particularly cold, so many of the chilli plants have survived out in the unheated greenhouse. I picked the ripe fruits and wanted to dry the yellow lemon drops (the fat red one isn’t suitable for drying and I shall infuse some oil with it), so I tied them on a piece of string and hung them up with the socks! What a great way to display two of my hobbies.

Wrapped up

Not being one to follow fashion, despite its title, this post is not an end-of-year wrap-up, but about something closer to my heart… packaging.

All this surrounding some small headphones

All this surrounding some small headphones

A few weeks ago I bought myself some new headphones for my MP3 player. After much research, I selected some that should be robust and fit for purpose (listening to audiobooks at night when I can’t sleep and to help me fall asleep). They are the sort that fits into the ear and so they really are small. When they arrived, however, they were contained in a box measuring 13 x 14 x 4.2cm. The packaging included the outer box, an internal piece of cardboard and no less than three separate pieces of plastic. Now, these headphones could have fitted comfortably in a medium-sized matchbox,without the need for any plastic, but that wouldn’t have made them look ‘high quality’, I suppose. Indeed, a quick test revealed that a simple combination of matchbox and their carrying case would have been ideal packaging:

Headphones in (French) matchbox

Headphones in (French) matchbox

Matchbox in carrying case

Matchbox in carrying case

And all that was before we even got to Christmas. I love the idea of a wrapped present and we have a couple of bags containing suitable paper/boxes/bags for wrapping gifts, but most of it is second hand in some way. I collect pretty boxes and tissue paper, along with gift bags, paper and pretty envelopes in which to put gifts. I also collect ribbons  – you’d be surprised how many organic goods come wrapped in tissue paper with cotton ribbon or tape around.

The pile of waste outside just one house after Christmas

The pile of waste outside just one house after Christmas

But I am in the minority. A short walk on the day when refuse was due to be collected after Christmas revealed piles of wrapping and packaging waste. Not content with wasteful, throw-away gifts, it seems that we in the UK want to compound the horror with tons or wrapping paper. It really does sadden me that so many people care so little about our planet and are quite prepared to be profligate with our limited resources.

I didn’t plan to end the year on a gloomy note, so I will make a promise instead… in 2014 I will try to find more ways to encourage people to treasure and nurture our planet and take just a few more small steps (like the Snail of Happiness) towards sustainability.

Wishing you all a happy and sustainable new year!

All present and correct

As you may know, we do not give presents at Christmas and, as far as possible, we try not to receive them either. It’s all part of the trying to be sustainable and avoid waste. But that is not to say that we don’t give presents… we just give them at random times and only when we know the gift is ‘right’ for the recipient. Rather than hundreds of cards and piles of presents at this time of year, we make a donation to Practical Presents… something for people who really need our assistance.

In the past few weeks the only presents I have given have been two calendars and a box of dark chocolate Brazil nuts, the latter being a birthday present. However, a visit to High Bank on Saturday inspired me to make a little gift for Sissie:

Some tiny mittens for Sissie

Some tiny mittens for Sissie

I’ll be posting them later, so if you are reading this, Perkin, don’t tell her!

A bit of flexibility

It’s been rather windy here… gusting up to 70mph overnight, but mostly 40-50mph. It’s not unusual for the west coast of Wales and, over the years, we have got used to adapting our garden to withstand such winds.

Willow hedge: our flexible friend!

Willow hedge: our flexible friend!

When we first moved into our house, the garden comprised a lawn, a patio, a paved path along the back boundary and a larch-lap fence. We moved in on a blustery day towards the end of 1999. When we got up the following morning, one of the fence panels had blown down. To begin with, we tried replacing and repairing fence panels as they were damaged before finally acknowledging that this is not the place for a solid fence. So, we took down the fence along the back boundary and planted a hedge to provide shelter and slow the wind. There is a field behind and this has its own fence to contain the sheep, so we planted  willow. The ground is soggy and the willows help with that, plus they flex in the wind and, although we have to cut them to stop them growing too big, we’ve never had to replace any of them and they save us money (providing wood-chip for compost and the chicken run and fuel for the Kelly kettle) rather than costing us anything to maintain.

The same cannot be said for many of the fences around us. One neighbour had 10cm (4 inch) fence posts break in the high winds a few weeks ago – probably because they were supporting solid fence panels. We’ve seen several fences and walls blown down recently (one twice in as many months), but still our hedge survives.

And so it is with life… sometimes flexibility allows us to survive turbulent times in tact – especially if we have our roots firmly planted in the soil.

Our daily veg (and fruit)

So, here we are in the depths of winter and I realise that we are still managing to eat something home-grown at least once every day. Considering our small garden, I’m terribly pleased about this.

Aliss - star layer

Aliss – star layer

First, there is the fresh produce… currently we are getting an egg every day from Aliss (none from any of the others, but that’s not surprising from the two oldies). In addition, I’m able to go out into the garden and pick kale, broccoli leaves, blood-veined sorrel and a range of oriental leaves (my favourite in salads is red mizuna), or dig up some oca; plus a few chillies are finally ripening up in our very soggy greenhouse. There’s also still sage growing abundantly, which I love to use in stuffing. NB: all photos in this post were taken today (26 December 2013).

Red mizuna (mostly)

Red mizuna (mostly)

Second, we have stored produce. We still have many kilos of potatoes left: we’re currently eating Colleen, the last of our first earlies which have simply been stored in a cardboard box in the loft. We’ve got some of each of the other three varieties left – Valour, Milva and Mira – so those should keep us going for quite a while yet. Maybe next year I will manage to be completely self-sufficient in potatoes. Other stored produce that needed little or no processing are the winter squashes (two big ones left) and the dried beans (Czar runners), dried chillies (Lemon drop), poppy seeds and sunflower seeds.

Broccoli - not sprouting yet, but the leaves are good

Broccoli – not sprouting yet, but the leaves are good

Then we have things that needed some work to allow them to be stored: bottled apple, apple butter, frozen stewed apple* (does there seem to be a theme?); frozen stewed rhubarb; frozen raspberries and blackberries (the latter foraged rather than grown ourselves); frozen vegetable soups; frozen passata; and frozen chillies (Alberto Locoto, which don’t dry well because they are so fleshy).

I know that I couldn’t supply all our needs, but it is lovely to know that we eat food from our garden every day – food not doused in pesticides, not grown using chemical fertilisers, vegetables of heritage varieties, many from local producers or from saved seed and with very very few food miles. To me, that feels like a real triumph that I want to celebrate.


* OK, I confess this is all from the lovely Perkin… homegrown at High Bank rather than Chez Snail.

PS There’s a new square on the Masterpiece page, if you are interested.

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