Category Archives: health & home

Completely and utterly lost the plot

Today was a sad day for our adventures in sustainable living.  One of our biggest missions in self sufficiency has been to try to grow as much of our own food as possible.  Unfortunately, after nearly 3 years of struggling against the elements, I’ve finally decided to give up on my little allotment plot.

It certainly wasn’t an easy decision but it had to be done.  When we joined the waiting list I had just one child who was at school and quite a lot more free time.  By the time we’d waited 3 years for a plot to become available I’d had another (very demanding) baby, was running my own business, and we’d started homeschooling.  Although in theory homeschooling and allotments should go hand in hand, I found the reality to be quite different.

The kids love pottering around planting seeds and weeding when they feel like doing it. Dragging them half a mile down the road to battle the ever increasing jungle that was our plot 3 or 4 times a week was a completely different matter.  It stopped being fun.  In fact, on those frequent occasions when we hadn’t made it down for a few weeks (or even months) the feeling of dread about what we were going to find down there took all the joy out of growing our own.

I do think that if we’d been able to eat everything we grew it may have been different.  However a lot of our crops just vanished into thin air.  Yes I know that there are plenty of birds, mice and rats on allotments who will help themselves to your raspberries and other soft fruits – not to mention the slugs – but that’s just one of those circle of life kind of things.  When you go down on Christmas Eve to pick your abundant harvest of sprouts and find that each and every plant has been stripped bare it’s another matter entirely.  And as for the person who decided to help themselves to our asparagus in its second year, killing all of our plants in the process (asparagus needs at least 3 years to establish before it can be picked).  Well, I hope they enjoyed it because we certainly couldn’t.

It’s not that I don’t like sharing our food – far from it.  In fact in our years of plenty most of our friends have been inundated with various crops (actually, they’ve usually been inundated with lots of courgettes and rhubarb but you know what I mean).  However, I can kind of see how the kids lost interest when they weren’t actually getting to eat the things they had invested so much energy into growing.

To be completely honest, despite the occasional thefts and the moaning kids I could have put up with all of it to continue on the plot if it hadn’t been for this year’s TERRIBLE weather.  2012 being the wettest summer on record was the final straw.  Nothing grew except the weeds – everything else rotted!  We couldn’t get down there at all, and to be honest there wasn’t really much point in even trying to go.  The ground was so wet that walking on it would have damaged the soil structure.  The DPM which protects our growing soil from the arsenic (our plot was along a disused China Clay train track) ensured that the water couldn’t drain.  Even the most seasoned and experienced allotmenteers lost practically everything they grew.  It just wasn’t happening.

So today I phoned the council and handed in my notice.  Our allotment days are over.  Although I was told I could go on the waiting list again for another plot, I really don’t think the allotment lifestyle is for us.  There are too many highly specialised pests and diseases, too many chemicals, and too many interfering busybodies to make having an allotment worthwhile.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t had fun over the past few years.  There have been some really cool things about having an allotment (the winter of apple wine being one that particularly springs to mind). We’ve got muddy, we’ve had a laugh and we’ve got to enjoy loads of new foods that we’d never have even thought of making had it not been for our various gluts.  Courgette bread anyone?  How about beetroot and chocolate cake?  Omnomnom!

Now my focus is turning to creating a Vegetable Yarden instead.  We’ve got a backyard, albeit a small one and we’re not afraid to use it to its fullest.  I’ve found this amazing website called Vertical Veg which is full of tips for growing in small spaces.  I will beat the slugs that live under the decking and grow as much as I can outside my kitchen door.  This might be the end of our allotment but when it comes to growing our own, this is only the beginning…

bye bye allotment, we will miss you!


Lifestyle Entrepreneur – So that’s what you call this work from home thing!

I came across this term the other day – Lifestyle Entrepreneur.  Finally I have a name for what it is I do, or rather why I do the things I do.

If I’m honest, my anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist politics have never quite sat right with the fact that, on the whole, I make a living by selling things.  Yes they are planet friendly, socially responsible, good quality things but they are things all the same.

However, the things I sell are also things that immensely benefit my life.  My kids benefit from having a good selection of books, toys, puzzles and games to play with.  I love the fact that I have a massive basket of books, toys and CDs on the floor for my 3 year old and a shelf full of more mature titles for my eldest.  It’s strewing at its finest yet all my business samples are easily accessible and (mostly) in one place, ready to be taken to an event at the drop of a hat.

As for the rather lovely collection of blue glass bottles that line my bathroom.  Well, they not only support organic farming and are largely fair-trade but all the products and even the packaging is manufactured in a little eco-factory in the UK so have a very minimal carbon footprint.   And I really do like having a nice moisturiser to use, especially as my acne prone, stress-susceptible, sensitive skin is looking a thousand times better now than it has ever done before.

At the end of the day I have always worked in sales – with the exception of working in catering for a brief period of time (the “spilling the last portion of trifle down a customer’s back” episode spelled the end of my Nigella aspirations).  I’ve worked in dozens of shops, done more than my fair share of telesales jobs, sold advertising space for an international merchant banking magazine (yes, really) and even used to sell roses in pubs and night clubs when I was saving money to go to uni. Do you know what? I was good at it too.

Even though this particular flower girl had a shaved head, a face full of piercings and a pair of para-boots on her feet, she used to shift around £200 of roses in a night.  How?  To be honest I have absolutely no idea.  It might just be because I love chatting to people and that at the time, selling roses was my only opportunity to get out for a night and go dancing. However I do remember one customer saying that the only reason he was buying a slightly manky rose from me was because I had “an honest face”.

Now I don’t really know what he meant by that, but I guess it might have been something to do with the fact that I really didn’t mind if someone bought my roses or not.  I’ve never been a pushy sales person who’ll say anything at all as long as it closes the deal.  If you don’t want what I’m offering, it’s fine with me.  There’ll always be someone else who likes it, and as I now only offer products that are ethical and in tune with my ideology,  I’m happier today than I ever was in any of my previous jobs.

Despite my politics, it seems that sales is my thing.  It’s what I enjoy doing and for some unknown reason I seem to be good at it.  However I’m really not one of those people who is motivated by making huge amounts of money.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to be better off financially than I am right now, but the thought of acquiring vast wealth really doesn’t float my boat.

Instead, selling things and running my own business allows me to earn a living while spending time with my kids and that is something far more precious than all the wealth in the world!  The fact that I get to support fair-trade initiatives, promote children’s literacy and empower people to live healthier lives at the same time is a bonus, and one that helps me to see that what I do is about far more than just selling alone.

I love the term “Lifestyle Entrepreneur” and I’m glad I discovered it this week.  It’s the perfect way to describe my aim of living a sustainable, happy, healthy life with my family while getting to enjoy some very nice things without it costing the earth.


Good food for free…

I love this time of year! Not only are we starting to see the fruits of our labours on the veg plot, but there is also plenty of free food to be found in hedgerows and disused bits of land all across the country, just waiting to be picked by frugal living fanatics like myself.

I’m talking, of course, about delumptious Blackberries which have actually come into season a little bit early this year. I have so many happy memories of picking blackberries as a kid – roaming around the country lanes which surrounded the various houses we lived in throughout my childhood, and I love taking my own kids out to share the joy of foraging for free food.

We have already been out picking this year, even though it’s early August, and my youngest especially enjoyed helping herself to the scrumminess that is abundant in our hedgerows. OK we didn’t manage to bring enough home for jam just yet, too many of them went in her tummy, but if the weather holds we will have plenty of opportunities to go and get some more ready to preserve as jams, wines and good ol’ blackberry crumble and cus’.

I was, however, really surprised to learn that blackberry picking is a dying art especially in the current (no pun intended) economic climate. I can’t imagine not going out to pick blackberries during the summer, especially as they cost around £2.00 in Asda for a paltry 350g. They grow in hedgerows for Pete’s sake! Plus the ones you pick yourself taste so much nicer, and the abundant quantities mean you can make jars and jars of jam to keep you going through most of the year.

That article from The Telegraph is a couple of years old, and I’m guessing that as the recession continues to bite more and more people will be heading out with containers and taking advantage of what the season has to offer. The thing is, you don’t need to live in the countryside to take advantage of this particular crop. We live just 10mins walk from the city centre yet there are tonnes of blackberry picking sites within a couple of minutes walk from our house.

Now, I’m not going to give away my favourite spot, but if you live in an urban area then there are numerous places where you can pick blackberries. Disused railway lines, cycle paths or any bit of unused wasteland are usually full of bramble bushes with plenty of fruit, and of course they can also be found in woodlands and hedges too. I always carry some degradable freezer bags with me in a Wikaniko bag-tube so I can pick plenty of blackberries whenever I find them.

Bramble bushes grow prolifically even in stony, unfavourable ground and their branches will grow rapidly, forming a thick tangle of bushes in very little time. They are in season for quite a long time as well, as they start to fruit from July onwards here in the south.  Be warned, though. Don’t pick blackberries after Old Michealmas Day on the 11th of October. According to folklore these blackberries belong to the devil, and he marks his territory by peeing on them – nice!

Blackberries have been part of our diet and even culture since the Stone Age. Blackberry seeds were found in the stomach of a Neolithic man who was unearthed in Essex in 1911 and have played an important role in many Paganistic feasts and rituals throughout the years as blackberries were said to be sacred to the old deities. Blackberry bushes were often planted on graves to protect the deceased from the devil and they have also been used as charms to create wealth and as a cure for whooping cough, dysentery and even sore throats. (www.herbsociety.org.uk)

It seems our ancestors had a lot more common sense than modern society (no surprises there then). Blackberries are certainly a “super-food” They are exceptionally high in anti-oxidants, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Dietary fibre and Folic Acid and have an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) of 5347 per 100g making them one of the highest ranking of available ORAC foods. Even the seeds, which some prefer not to eat, are very rich in Omega 3s amongst many other essential nutrients, which is why I never remove them when I’m making jam. (http://en.wikipedia.org)

Modern thought says that you should always wash your blackberries thoroughly before eating them as they can contain various moulds, mildews and maggots. Personally I’ve never worried too much about that, I figure that our bodies will cope happily with a few little micro-organisms and you just can’t beat the joy of eating them straight off the bush. By the time you boil them up for jam most of the nasties will be stopped in their tracks. I’m not a doctor though, so if in doubt take them home and wash them first.  Before I cook with them I do put my blackberries in a bowl full of water and add a teaspoon of salt. Just leave them there for a couple of hours and the bugs should be dealt with. Blackberries are best eaten fresh but you can easily freeze them to make delicious puds at a later date.

Get prepared for foraging with a Wikaniko Bag-Tube & some degradable freezer bags from www.wikid-eco-store.co.uk and make the most of some of the yummiest free food that nature provides.


Greener Alternatives That Don’t Cost The Earth – Soap Nuts, The Natural Way to Do Your Washing.

We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees, especially in these tough economic times.  Soap Nuts, however, do and they are an effective and economic alternative to conventional laundry detergents.

After writing about some of the nasties which are lurking in many laundry products, I thought I should take the time to tell you about the awesomeness of Soap Nuts.   Soap Nuts grow on the Soap Berry tree and have been used for centuries in India and Nepal.  Like many plants (such as the chestnut tree & soapwort) they are naturally high in saponins, or soap.

Why would a plant need to produce soap?  Well, the saponins act as a natural defence against fungus, bacteria and pests, helping the tree to grow in less than favourable conditions.  (As an aside you can use them to make your own eco-friendly pesticide sprays, multi-surface cleaners and even head-lice repelling shampoos but more on that later).

So the tree isn’t particularly bothered that its anti-fungal, anti-microbial berries are also incredibly useful for us when it comes to washing our clothes.  It’s got its own reasons for producing them, which we humans have been taking advantage of for centuries in many parts of the world.  The soap is released when the berries are put into warm water, producing mild bubbles which keep even delicate fabrics naturally clean and fresh.

For washing clothes I pop about 6 soapnuts into an old sock and tie a knot at the end so they don’t escape.  I put the sock in with my clothes in the washing machine drum and let them do their stuff.  Washing at 30° is fine for most things.  You get more bubbles at a higher temperature but they won’t last for as many washes.  That’s right, my 6 soapnuts will do at least 3-4 washes which means they cost less than 10p a wash!  Compare that to the prices of a conventional non-bio, even a non-ecofriendly one, and you can see straight away how they benefit your wallet.  Oh, and as they leave your clothes naturally soft there’s no need to use fabric conditioners either which saves you even more money and makes them perfect for washing towels and re-usable nappies too.

So Soap Nuts can save you money on your household expenses, but how are they at saving the planet?

Really rather good, as it goes.  Firstly they grow on trees.  Trees absorb CO² and release oxygen so Soap Nuts are a truly renewable primary resource.  The trees are hardy thanks to their natural defences, and grow well in many tropical climates. They grow to around 20-30 feet and will produce berries for about 90 years providing much needed income to the rural communities that live in these areas.  Local farmers collect the fruits as they fall, dry them in the sunshine using no chemical processing whatsoever, before packing them and shipping them to their destinations.  Try comparing that to the pollution caused by the production processes of the conventional SLS laden washing powders which make huge profits for big multi-national corporations.  I know what I’d rather put in my washing machine, especially as the anti microbial properties of the waste water they produce even helps clean out the drains in an environmentally friendly way.

Soap Nuts are a great alternative to conventional detergents for sufferers of eczema and psoriasis and have actually been used for years in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for these conditions.  They are hypo-allergenic which makes them particularly good for people with sensitive skin, especially babies.  The lack of chemicals means that they keep your colours brighter for longer, however don’t expect your whites to come out “Persil White” if you use Soap Nuts on their own – they’re only berries for Pete’s sake!  Not to worry, though.  A teaspoon of Soda Crystals or BioD Nappy Whitener in with your wash will give them a sufficient boost to keep your whites white.  For dark and coloured washes they are perfectly good on their own and are a completely natural and organic detergent which keeps your clothes soft and clean.  And that is why I am nuts about Soap Nuts.

If you’d like to try them for yourself take a look at Living Naturally Soapnuts!


The Hidden Danger in Charity Shop Clothes…

Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to clothes shopping I’m much more into charity shops than high street shops.  Let’s face it, charity shops are one of the most environmentally friendly sources of clothing you’ll ever come across, and they’re bloody cheap too!  As long as you have a good idea of what clothes suit your body shape and a reasonable knowledge of decent clothing brands you can come home with bundles of lovely new(ish) outfits for under a tenner.   And if they don’t fit quite as you’d like it’s  much easier to get the scissors and unpicker out to remodel them into something more flattering when the garment in question has only cost you a couple of pounds.

Just recently I’ve been running into a spot of bother with some of my charity shop finds.  I bought a gorgeous Wallis jumper for just 99p and (foolishly) decided to wear it that day.  It smelled fresh and clean and I just didn’t think.  Even when the burning rash spread up the left side of my face it didn’t occur to me that my lovely new jumper might be to blame.  I just slapped on some aloe vera gel and let it settle down.  It wasn’t until I put on the jumper a couple of days later (guess what, it still smelled lovely and fresh) and my face flared up again that I made the connection.

The thing is, laundry detergents and fabric conditioners contain some of the most toxic chemicals in the home but for some reason modern thinking (i.e. what the box in the corner of the room tells you) has decided that if your clothes don’t have a strong fragrance then you aren’t clean and acceptable. However there is a vast amount of research which shows that the VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) which make up these products are having a profound effect on health.  In fact, recent studies have shown that the air quality inside the average home is WORSE than it is outside, regardless of whether you live in the countryside or in the heart of the city centre.  Is it any wonder that there’s been a sharp rise in allergies such as eczema and asthma in the last few decades?

Now I’m a smoker, so I’m not going to lecture anyone on the dangers of airborne chemicals.  Life would be pretty boring if we didn’t take some risks, but where the health effects of smoking are well documented, the health risks of fabric conditioners, laundry detergents, air fresheners and cleaning products are nowhere near as widely recognised by the vast majority of people.  The general opinion seems to be that if it’s on the shelves at the supermarket then it must be safe.  Sadly the reality is that detergent manufacturers have no legal obligation to even disclose all the ingredients they but in the box or bottle, let alone test them all and how they react with all the other airborne chemicals which are in the home.  If you look at some of the ingredients that are disclosed, the results are pretty scary.

•    Benzyl acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer

•    Benzyl Alcohol: Upper respiratory tract irritant

•    Ethanol: On the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Hazardous Waste list and can cause central nervous system disorders

•    A-Terpineol: Can cause respiratory problems, including fatal edema, and central nervous system damage

•    Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list

•    Camphor: Causes central nervous system disorders

•    Chloroform: Neurotoxic, anesthetic and carcinogenic

•    Linalool: A narcotic that causes central nervous system disorders

•    Pentane: A chemical known to be harmful if inhaled

Wow!

Some of the other health effects that come from using these kinds of conditioners and detergents include:

•    Headaches

•    Nausea

•    Vomiting

•    Dizziness

•    Blood pressure reduction

•    Irritation to skin, mucus membranes and respiratory tract

Yet we wear clothes that release these chemicals all day before settling down to sleep on pillows and duvets that are infused with them.  It’s just crazy!  Not to mention the effect these chemicals are having on our waterways and wildlife.  Do you suffer from headaches, fatigue or skin problems?  Maybe you should re-think what you are putting into your washing machine?

As someone who has used only green products for the last decade or so, I realise that I’m probably quite over sensitive to the chemicals found in non-eco brands.  I notice the smell on people in the park, and the next door neighbours washing line regularly has us begrudgingly heading indoors.  Like anything, we get used to what surrounds us so I guess that’s why detergent manufacturers come up with ever more inventive ways to get those fragrances out there.  “Keep your clothes huggably fresh, even after 12 hours” says one well known brand which comes with “state of the art scent release technology”.    I just don’t get it.  They make my eye’s water and my skin flare up and my kids hate them too.

Even after washing again without softener, these chemicals stay in the fabric which makes them even more hazardous for those who have sensitivity to them.  I’ve been known to wash hand-me-down clothes which have been donated to my kids up to four times to get rid of the smell and even then it can malinger.  There are many individuals who have unwittingly put a new brand into their washing machine, discovered they are allergic and then been unable to rinse the fragrance out of their machines and keep suffering from the allergic reaction long after they have stopped using the product.

So what are the alternatives?  BioD is a UK based company which uses only safe and natural ingredients in their products and they’re nowhere near as expensive as Ecover (which isn’t actually as green as they would have you believe).   You can get Eco-Wash Balls from a number of different manufacturers, with varying results its true, but I can vouch for the fact that the one Wikaniko sells works and works well.  Soapnuts are another fantastic detergent.  They are so natural they grow on trees, keep your clothes soft and have the added advantage of being completely compostable once you’ve finished with them.  As for fabric conditioners, I just don’t use them.  I’d much rather smell of nice organic perfume and put pomander bags in my drawers.  Old fashioned I know, but so much nicer than the smell of “Black Diamond & Lotus Flower”.  What does a black diamond even smell like anyway?

Anyway, I’ve learnt my lesson about charity shop clothes.  No matter how much I’m itching to get into my latest treasure, it’s not worth the risk of itching all over and having a rash for the next two weeks.  Won’t stop me charity shopping though, got to love those brand new second hand clothes.


%d bloggers like this: