I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas…

Sorry if I’ve mentioned the ‘C’ word in August, but it takes a little planning if you want to have an environmentally friendly Christmas. I’m all for enjoying the festive season, and we can do it in a way which isn’t harmful for our planet.

Think of all the plastic involved in Christmas – cracker inserts, wrapping paper (there’s a lot of plastic in Christmas wrapping), presents, Christmas cards, glitter… Here are some great ideas to green up your Christmas and have fun at the same time.

I’m quite into crafts, so I enjoy making eco-friendly Christmas presents. In the picture I have some lip balm (using beeswax from our lovely honeybees), lavender hearts (we have plenty of lavender), beeswax tealights, a gift label made by my very talented stepdaughter and a hand knitted cotton washcloth. I also found some recycled kraft cards to make my own Christmas cards with – I printed them with a lino cut I made, so they didn’t take long to do and they cost 10p each including the envelope. There are so many ideas on the internet for fabulous things you can make that are also environmentally friendly. You could even combine some of them in a lovely gift box.

If you don’t like making things yourself, there are plenty of great crafters out there. Why not support a small, eco-friendly business? I’ve had some fabulous Christmas presents from small businesses, including some beautiful hand thrown teapots and mugs. Charity shops are fantastic for one-off presents. Often the quality of goods you can find in them is brilliant. That’s where this fabulous Christmas stocking came from.

My stepmum came up with one of the best ideas ever – a Secret Santa. We have a big family, and we were spending huge amounts of time and money on gifts for each other that, to be honest, often weren’t really wanted. So now, my stepmum co-ordinates our Secret Santa – we each choose a gift around £50 (set whatever price you want) and she sends the gift idea to another member of the family. We only receive one gift (the children get more) and we know it is something we will really use. My husband and I have used our Secret Santas to buy things like yoghurt makers, sourdough bread equipment, dehydrator for preserving fruit and so on.

There are plenty more ideas for a green Christmas – you can buy plastic free crackers (or make your own – there are kits out there too), recycle wrapping paper or buy eco-friendly paper, wooden toys for young children (rather than plastic). And if you think you’ve got enough ‘things’ – some of our family ask for a donation to their favourite eco-charity rather than a gift.

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Cunning Courgette Ideas

If you grow your own vegetables, or subscribe to a weekly vegetable box, you’ll know all about seasonal gluts. It’s a question that comes up a lot on the allotment and zero waste forums I belong to. The challenge when you grow vegetables or buy a locally sourced vegetable delivery is that it’s difficult to stagger the harvest of some vegetables, so you end up with a lot of one type. At the moment, we are swimming in French beans and courgettes.

Today I’m going to focus on courgettes, as when they get going, boy do they produce a haul! And if they’re not picked regularly, they become giant marrows, which tend to taste watery and nothingy (in my opinion). So, here are a few ideas for your courgette cornupcopia.

The brilliant thing about courgettes is that to be honest, when they’re cooked in something, they’re pretty tasteless. Why is that good? Because you can use them as a cunning way to get vegetables into your veggie-hating kids (or husband). They also add moisture when they’re added into baked dishes – perfect for this chocolate courgette cake shown above. There are any number of recipes for chocolate courgette cake on the internet, so I’ll let you pick one that suits you best. All I can say is that it tastes delicious and freezes brilliantly.

There are plenty of other ways of subversively adding courgettes to dishes – grate into spaghetti bolognese and other pasta dishes, grate and squeeze out the water and add to cake or bread recipes (courgette lemon drizzle cake is ace) or simply put into quiches or stews. I tried courgette and cheese muffins a couple of years ago and they worked a treat.

If you’re happy for the courgettes to take more of a starring role, try courgette and feta or courgette and sweetcorn fritters – Nigella has a fabulous recipe here. Other ideas include courgette and hazelnut burgers, courgette and tomato soup, ratatouille, mushroom and courgette curry. One of my favourite ways to eat courgettes is to oven roast them with peppers, sweet potato, onions, garlic and tomatoes and add them to couscous.

They’ll freeze brilliantly when combined with tomatoes and other veggies as a ratatouille and are perfect for adding to winter stews. If all else fails, and you end up with super marrows (I planted eight courgettes last year so it was a bit of a challenge dealing with them) – pigs love them. We have a lady in our village who keeps pigs and was happy to take any amount of giant marrows off my hands. Happy porkers…

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Pause for thought…

A few weeks ago, the wheat fields near us were this beautiful shade of greeny blue. Now they’re golden and almost ready to harvest. The seasons come and go so quickly don’t they.

This spring, two of my friends died. One of them had been struggling with motor neurone disease for a couple of years and the other contracted an aggressive form of cancer that took her life in four short months. Both of them were in their early 50s.

Time is running out for all of us. None of us knows how long we will spend in this beautiful world. And it feels as if the clock is ticking on our planet too.

I’ve made a resolution. To make every day count. To be thankful for the beauty and joy in my life, and to use the difficult times for good. If anything, I’m more committed than ever to doing what I can to preserve our planet for the generations after me.

I will follow my dreams with a passion. I’m a writer, and my goal is to finish a novel a year – so far so good with this year’s book. I will make time and space to try new things (basket weaving, making butter, visiting the west coast of Ireland and Lindisfarne are all on my list). Above all, I have vowed to spend time with those around my – my good friends, my family and my lonely elderly neighbours who are sometimes hard work, but who knows, I may be in their position one day. How about you? What are your dreams and goals?

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Fabulous Fruit

A brilliant way of helping the environment (and you) is to grow fruit trees in your garden. We’ve been planting some over the last few years and we’re now reaping the rewards. We also have fruit bushes we’ve grown from cuttings and strawberry plants that we have been propagating every year. It’s been a bit of a fight though, as the birds love our cherries – and the chickens are very keen on raiding the strawberries.

Last year, I was fed up with looking at empty cherry tree branches, so I made some ‘sleeves’ from some old netting to protect them from pesky predators. Hey presto – fabulous cherries for us, and I did leave a few for the birds too.

The beauty of fruit trees is that they come in all shapes and sizes, so even if you have a small garden, you can still grow some. Look out for dwarf rootstock plants if you need small trees. They will survive perfectly well in pots if you make sure you feed them well, so even if just have a patio, you’re good to go. And, if you have a sheltered garden with a wall that gets plenty of sunshine, you’ll also be able to get away with growing more ‘exotic’ fruit like apricots and peaches in front of it.

Taking cuttings from blackcurrants and redcurrants couldn’t be simpler – just wait until the bushes have lost all their leaves in the winter (so you know the plants are dormant) and then remove stems from the base of the bush – choose the strong healthy ones. I just plant them into a spare space in the garden or into a pot full of earth. For blueberries, take a 6 inch cutting from the end of a stem when the plant is actively growing and place in a pot of compost. You can easily grow blueberries in this country, but you’re better off using ericaceous compost as they need acidic soil. They will need protection from the birds too!

We don’t use any pesticides on our trees. One of our good friends is an apple farmer and we asked him for the best advice for growing our fruit organically. He told us that if we didn’t use pesticides, the young trees would probably get diseases in the first couple of years, but then they would become resistant. That’s exactly what happened, and our trees are now healthy and bear fantastic crops of fruit.

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Happy Tomatoes

My tomatoes are a wee bit late this year, as I grew them all from seed, and I was slow getting off the mark. They’re looking good, but at this stage they need a good feed to really get them going.

There are plenty of liquid tomato feeds available at garden centres and DIY stores but…many of them come in plastic containers and they have quite a few road miles under their belt.

If you’ve got room, it’s incredibly easy to make your own liquid comfrey feed – cheaper and greener, and due to its high nitrogen content, it’s a highly nutritious plant & vegetable feed – perfect for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Comfrey is a real wonder herb – it is used in healing salves, to restore lustre and shine to hair. Our chickens loved pecking at the comfrey plants – it’s high in protein, so very good for them. And…our honeybees feed on the flowers in early spring.

A word of warning – comfrey spreads like mad, so you might want to keep it isolated. We’ve grown it in a round flower bed and also on a steep bank at the front of our house, where its long root system has been brilliant for stabilising the earth in the bank. It has beautiful mauve flowers – an added bonus.

To make liquid comfrey feed, just pick the comfrey leaves from the base of the plant (you might want to use gloves as the hairy leaves can irritate). Chop them up and pack them into a bucket or better still, a tub with a lid (we used an old fat ball tub) – it does smell so the lid keeps the aroma contained and stops mosquitoes from laying eggs in the water. Cover the leaves with water – weigh them down with a large stone or old brick – and leave for a few weeks until you can see a brown smelly liquid.

Pour the liquid into a container and store in a cool, dark place (you can top up the leaves with more water for another batch if you like). Dilute the comfrey feed in a ratio of roughly 1 part comfrey liquid to 10 parts water and hey presto! Use as soon as your tomato flowers have set fruit.

You can also use comfrey leaves as a plant mulch and it’s great on the compost heap too. Alternatively, lay comfrey leaves at the bottom of your potato and runner bean trenches for a fantastic boost.

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Behind every book…

The American author Pat Conroy once said, “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable.”

Or put more simply, in the words of Suze Orman, “Writing is hard work, not magic.”

As a writer myself, I’m only too aware of the enormous, painful and protracted effort that goes into producing a book. But the feeling when you’re finished is truly amazing. And it’s quite something to receive a great review from a reader.

So, as today is National Writing Day, why not check out a new author and support them? Or leave a review for an author you’ve recently bought a book from. Good reviews really help to make an enormous difference in search rankings. And…you might also want to consider writing somebody a note today. In our cyber world, getting a handwritten note or card from somebody is quite special. #NationalWritingDay

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Make your own: Dishwasher Tablets

I’m such a sucker for zero waste recipes, and I’ve tried a huge amount in my time – some of them were total flops. So I promise you, I will only ever post recipes that work (for me at least). I came across this formula for dishwasher tablets recently, and as I had all the ingredients here, I thought I’d give them a go. They worked perfectly. You can buy cheaper – Wilko sell a cardboard box of 30 dishwasher tablets for £1. But, these really aren’t expensive and it’s very satisfying to make your own. I buy my bicarb and citric acid in cardboard boxes, so zero waste for those ingredients. Here’s how to do it. You’ll need:

  • 1 Cup of Bicarbonate of Soda
  • 1/4 Cup Citric Acid
  • 1 Tablespoon Dishwashing Liquid

Add the bicarbonate of soda and the citric acid to a large mixing bowl and stir together. Pour in the washing up liquid and mix all of the ingredients together thoroughly. I used my hands, but you could whisk it if you preferred.

Then, push lumps of the mixture into small silicone ice moulds. They will froth up a bit – this is normal (see image below). Just wait ten minutes or so and level them off with a knife. I put the excess into an empty mould space. This recipe made 24 tablets.

Leave them to harden for about four hours, or overnight. Then gently ease them out of the mould and store in an airtight jar. Place one tablet in your dishwasher compartment and you’re good to go!

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A good kind of sprout

I’m not a fan of sprouts (the Brussels variety). I’ll eat them at Christmas if they’re cooked with bacon or chestnuts, but otherwise, no thank you. However, if you’re wanting to reduce your food waste and food miles, there is a good kind of sprout – it’s amazing how many vegetables you can resprout to produce more leaves. So, before you throw your carrot tops and spring onion ends away, take a read of this…

Spring onions: This is super easy to do. When you’re chopping up spring onions, cut off the green stalks a little bit further away from the bulb than you would normally do. You’re aiming to be left with about an inch of the bulb. Then put the bulbs in a small glass jar or pot and cover the bottom of the bulb with water – you don’t want to cover any more than that. Leave it somewhere sunny, keep checking the water level so that it doesn’t dry out and refresh the water every couple of days or so. You’ll be amazed how quickly they start to resprout and soon you’ll have lots of new spring onion shoots.

Garlic sprouts: This is a similar process to spring onions. If you have cloves of garlic that have begun to sprout with a little green tip, place the garlic cloves in a container and pour in water until it just covers the bottom of the cloves. You don’t want to cover too much of the garlic cloves, as they will rot. Put the container on a windowsill or somewhere sunny, and within a few days, they will start sprouting. When you cut the green sprouts to eat, leave about a third of the length to regrow. Chop up the green garlic sprouts and use in salads, as a topper for baked potatoes (great with cream cheese or sour cream), or blend and use in salad dressings, soups etc.

Carrot tops: You can eat carrot tops! Use them as a garnish for stews in the same way that you would use parsley, cook them into soups (they’re great with spinach soup), stir fry with other vegetables or make carrot pesto (there are plenty of recipes for this online). You’ll need fresh carrots that have a little bit of green growth at the top. Cut about an inch or two off the top end of the carrot and place it in a bowl. Pour in some water, covering about half of the carrot top and place the bowl or pot on a windowsill. Again, keep the water topped up and change the water every couple of days. Within a week or so, the tops will begin to sprout.

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What a waste…

The great thing about trying to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle is that you’re always learning something new. Recently I’ve been trying hard to cut down my food waste. A quick online search showed me an amazing number of ideas to put into practise. One thing that struck me was how many scraps and peelings we throw away that can be put to good use – cutting waste, saving money and providing fun food & household help. Here are a few ideas…

Apple and pear peels: You can make a simple apple or pear juice by boiling the peels (and apple cores) in water with a little sugar. Add enough water to cover the peels & cores, thrown in a dash of lemon juice to stop the skins going brown and to help preserve it. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes, then strain the juice. If you like homemade coleslaw, simply cut up the apple peel and add it to the mix. You can also dehydrate the peel (in a low oven for about an hour or in a dehydrator) and add to museli or even curries.

Potato peels: Preheat your oven to 190 C and make sure you thoroughly wash the potatoes before peeling them. Toss the peelings in a bowl with a little oil, along with salt, pepper and herbs of your choice – rosemary or thyme work really well. For a stronger taste, you could also add cumin, paprika, garlic – whatever takes your fancy. Bake them in a hot oven for about 15-25 minutes until they’re crispy. Give them a stir halfway through.

Stale bread: Never throw stale bread away! There are too many uses for it. Cut into squares and fry them for croutons with salad and soups or whizz the crumbs in a blender to make bread sauce or a stuffing mix. Whole slices of bread are great for bread pudding or summer pudding (our family favourite). You can always save them in the freezer until you have enough for whatever you want to make. If none of these appeal to you, a slice of white bread is great for getting marks off painted walls – just rub the bread on the marks and watch them disappear…

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This black soap gets you squeaky clean!

I’m always experimenting with new soaps for our family. The more successful ones eventually find their way into my online Ellie’s Farm shop. It’s quite a process though – to comply with UK regulations, each soap formula must be sent to a registered cosmetic chemist for testing to ensure it is safe to use. It is an expensive and lengthy process, but worth it!

I use only natural ingredients in our soaps, and it’s always fun to see what I can find to add colour, texture and health-giving properties to the soap. I’d read that activated charcoal is good for your skin, so, spurred on by my husband who asked for a more ‘blokey soap’, I tested a few ingredients and came up with our new Spearmint + Charcoal soap.

Activated charcoal is reputed to draw impurities out of your skin, and also gives a very gentle exfoliation. It works best on normal or greasy skin. I’ve scented it with spearmint essential oil for a light, refreshing fragrance.

The soap bar is made from coconut oil, olive oil and sunflower oil. They provide a lovely bubbly moisturising wash.

If you’d like to buy a bar, click here

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