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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Save money – and the planet!

Often when people think of living an eco-friendly lifestyle, they assume it will cost them more money to do so. That’s true for some things – but actually there are a huge number of changes you can make to your lifestyle which help your purse – and the planet.

I reckon that by saving money with some initiatives, I can afford to then spend a little more on products like recycled toilet paper or eco-friendly washing up liquid that may cost a little more. Here are a few environmentally friendly habits that can save money. There are plenty more!

Bake / Make your own. We now make our own sourdough bread from scratch (we reckon it costs about 40p a loaf). We also make yoghurt, cream cheese, biscuits, cakes, vegetable and chicken stock, ice cream, jam, honey (from our bees!), pizza dough. Not only is it often cheaper to make your own food, it also costs the planet less in terms of packaging.

Using less. It’s so simple! There are so many things we can easily cut down on. Did you know that actually most washing machines do better on less powder or washing liquid? I cut down my washing liquid by a third, and my clothes are as clean as ever. I have really greasy hair, but a lot of people find they can go for longer without having to shampoo their hair if they try. Do you really need to use as much toilet paper every time you go to the loo? A biggie for a lot of us is the quantity of food we eat. Actually the majority of us really don’t need the portion sizes we currently eat. You can also eat more low cost staples like lentils or oats – which are more environmentally friendly than meat as well. These might seem like tiny little steps, but they all add up.

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There’s never an end to washing…

Eco egg laundry egg

Washing. Where to start. Okay, so we want to do away with plastic bottles (if possible) and certain leave nasty chemicals behind.

Just as an aside – my husband and I are both mildly asthmatic. I’d never thought about it before, but when I made the chance to an eco washing liquid for my clothes, lo and behold, I breathed a lot more easily. I’d never thought about that side of things before.

I’m going to start hard core with this post, and gently slip into reverse. So…

Conkers: Yes, believe it or not, you can do your washing simply by using conkers. You’ll need a wee bit of prep first. Collect your conkers and remove the green husks. Cut them into quarters and dry them on a towel if they are damp. Store in glass jar. To use, put 1/4 cup of conker bits into 1/2 cup of warm water and leave overnight. The resulting liquid will do 2 wash loads, and you can re-soak the conkers a couple of times at least.

ecoegg Laundry Egg: Some people love these, others think they’re a waste of space. Essentially, they contain two types of mineral pellets that produce a cleaning foam to lift off dirt without the need for laundry powder or liquid. Although they are made of plastic, you can buy the pellets separately to top up your egg, so it should last for ages. You can buy a scented or unscented version and they are allergy free and you don’t need to use a fabric conditioner. They’re available from Lakeland & Robert Dyas amongst others, or online. I have an ecoegg and I’m pretty pleased with its performance. It’s a good idea to treat stains with a stain remover first, and I must admit I do wash heavy duty dirt or the dog’s towels with an eco friendly laundry liquid. So, a thumbs up from me on the whole.

Smol laundry capsules: These are posted to you in recyclable packing and Smol claim to use less chemicals than conventional laundry liquids. I’ve just applied for a free trial, so I’ll keep you posted on these.

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Scrub Away…

Non plastic washing up scrubbies

So, going plastic free is a great thing. We’ve all seen the horrific images of beaches covered in plastic, and floating ‘islands’ of plastic that cover hundreds of miles of ocean. Here’s one way to do it. Ditch plastic washing up pads.

There are plenty of alternatives, so there’s something for everyone. I’m quite a picky washer upper – I like a dishcloth (cotton, so not a problem), but I also like a plastic sponge scourer. In fact, I love sponge scourers…sad as it may be. Here are a few environmentally alternatives I’ve tried. So long plastic sponges…

Loofah: I love my loofah! I tried to find a whole loofah, but everywhere I looked was out of stock. The word on the street is that you can buy them in Wilko, Boots, Savers and other high street stores. I managed to find a dedicated washing up loofah online and I love it. It has a really nice feel to it and does the job perfectly. Freshen it up in boiling water if it gets a bit yukky. The best news of all – it can be placed on your compost heap, where it will happily rot down and give you lovely wormy compost.

Coconut husk scrubbie: Great for pans and jobs that require a bit more welly. Loved it and again, the scrubbie bit is compostable.

Washing up sponge: If you really can’t shake the habit, don’t worry. EcoForce make a recycled washing up sponge. It’s a bit tougher than my old washing up sponges, but in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty good.

Unsponges: This is a general term for handmade washing up pads – look out for the ones with an eco friendly filling, made from organic cotton. I’ve not tried to make one myself yet – there are plenty of sources online. Shop small if you can and help an independant crafter. Otherwise, if you’re good at sewing, tutorials aplenty online.

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