December 5, 2013 § 2 Comments
I remember my heart sinking in a French supermarket as I looked for Ecover washing powder. The small store boasted aisles of detergents, fabric softeners, bleaches and Lord-knows-what-else but nothing truly environmentally ‘considerate’*.
The plethora of products available would have stunned my wartime peers. Due to extreme shortages of animal and vegetable fats, soaps (of all types) were rationed in the United Kingdom from 1942. As the level of rationing would probably shock modern sensibilities, I thought I would share it in full.
From 1942 to 1950 each person received four soap coupons per month to meet all their cleaning needs, from personal hygiene to the dishes! By the end of the war one coupon would get you one of the following:
4oz** hard soap (for scrubbing);
3oz toilet soap (for washing hands);
1/2oz liquid soap;
6oz soft soap (for washing hair);
3oz soap flakes (for soaking delicates); or
6oz soap powder (for regular laundry).
And forget about any fancy soap products, face washes, shampoos, bubble baths…!
These rations are brutal, even with the economies of scale in a larger household, but reading about them prompted me to wonder about my own soap usage, including in the laundry department.
Eking out the washing powder
Until earlier this year I used Ecover washing powder. It comes in 3kg boxes and claims to do 40 loads, working out at 75g per load. On that basis, one coupon would equal just over two loads of washing per month! Of course, I got considerably more than the recommended number of loads out of a box, as I am sure resourceful wartime women would have done too. How…?
I gleaned many important lessons from my mother. For one, a healthy degree of scepticism about almost all marketing information, but also that suds do not equal clean. My mother was still of a generation that believed cleanliness was next to godliness, so she was hardly sloppy where hygiene was concerned! However, she also believed in elbow grease and knew that a bit scrubbing or agitation gets things clean. Having grown up with London’s hard water she fully acknowledged that adding something to soften the water was helpful but in her experience a tablespoon of laundry powder with a dash of soda crystals (washing soda) was plenty for most washes.
I have perpetuated my mother’s habits, eking out the more expensive Ecover powder with a spoon of soda crystals. For whites or dish clothes I also used some borax# for its bleaching and degreasing properties, but the three powders never amounted to 75g of powder per load! And so my laundry powder practice remained until recently.
Mixing my own
In Paris I came across Marius Fabré’s excellent Savon de Marseille (Marseille soap), a soap containing at least 72% olive oil. Marius Fabré goes one better than most manufacturers. Its range includes a soap made only of olive oil and lye. A natural soap without palm oil## is very rare so before leaving France, I invested in a couple of kilos. (Yes, eyebrows were raised!) I have since found a UK supplier and now use this soap for everything from showering to hand washing my delicates… until earlier this year that is.
One day I ran out of washing powder and needed to turn a pile of undies and teeshirts round quickly. As needs must, I grated some Marseille soap into a bowl, mixed in a little borax and soda crystals and popped a tablespoon of the mixture into the washing machine drawer. The result was a revelation. The clothes smelt fresh, looked whiter than ever and felt softer than before… What is more, the washing powder drawer had never been cleaner!
After further research I tinkered with the ‘recipe’ and concluded that for my water area a powder made of four parts grated soap to two parts each of borax and soda crystals seems to work a treat. To my satisfaction I recognise every ingredient in this homemade laundry powder (with a little help from my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry) and as the ingredients are few and limited to naturally occurring elements, the detergent involves less manufacturing than an ‘eco-friendly’ washing powder that contains over a dozen ingredients. What is more, a kilo of my homemade powder costs a fraction of 3kg of Ecover powder and lasts just as long.
Detergents may only account for six to seven per cent of the embedded energy of a garment but thanks to home-mixed powder made of a few natural, biodegradable ingredients rather than a commercially produced ‘green’ detergent, my wardrobe’s footprint shrinks a little more. And by replacing fabric softener with an egg cup of cider vinegar, it is possible to shave even more embedded energy off my clothes, at no extra cost or effort!
Common sense warning
Although borax and washing soda are naturally occurring minerals, they are highly alkaline and the latter is corrosive, so please be sensible when handling them. Wear gloves, use designated/non-food spoons and containers and keep both out of the reach of children and pets.
* A truly environmentally friendly washing detergent is hard to find. E.g. whilst Ecover washing powder is free of phosphates (i.e. a chemical that causes excess algae in watercourses and depletes oxygen available for other aquatic life), the company cannot guarantee that its powder does not contain surfactants derived from palm oil. Some advocate soap nuts but from what I have read, these work better at higher temperatures, which requires more energy.
**1oz equals 28g.
# Recently I had to switch to borax substitute, a salt derived from bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and soap crystals, following changes in EU legislation due to borax’ mildly toxic nature.
## Palm oil is a cheap vegetable fat but an increased ‘demand’ for this oil has led to much of the deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. This oil is everywhere in cleaning, hygiene and food products but it is very difficult to avoid it as, in the European Union at least, manufacturers are not obliged to list palm oil as an ingredient.
November 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
I am not a morning person but on Sunday I found myself standing on the platform, kitted out in running shoes and Lycra, waiting for an early train. I was off to my first 10K race in a decade.
My stomach churned all the way there and my head was telling me that it was a very bad idea. Well actually, I was articulating these doubts to Mr M, who had kindly given up his weekend lie-in to look after my warm clothes and cheer me on. I was doubly nervous as my training had come to a shuddering halt in September when I sprained my ankle. After a few tentative runs in the last fortnight, I decided to pitch up for the race and treat it like my weekly long run. After all, I had paid the fee and we were due to meet friends for lunch afterwards.
As the train drew nearer to Brighton, my valour ebbed away. I knew myself. Treating this as a slow endurance run was not going to happen. I knew that as soon as I pinned a number to my chest, a switch in my head would flip. Expectations would kick in: the instinct to give the best of myself, to not do a half-hearted job… As would the demons: the appalling races of the past, the scars of childhood cross country runs…
These thoughts dogged me from the station down to the sea front but once amongst the mingling crowd of runners, supporters, garish technical fibres and a crackling PA system, I remembered how much I enjoy race days. The camaraderie of complete strangers deflects attention from gremlins and the selflessness of marshals, who give up a morning to herd hundreds of runners, is an uplifting reminder of human generosity.
When the PA voice called us to the starting pen, I took up my position, in the pack well behind the 60 minute placard and carried out last minute checks: laces tied, number in place, music selection at the ready… The starting gun sounded and the pack shuffled forward. My fingers found the start button on my watch as I crossed the line. And then the anxiety and memories of past races were wiped out.
Just as I do on training runs, for the kilometres that followed I went into a strange time and space continuum. Although delineated by a starting and finishing point, it does not feel confining. On the one hand, I am intensely focussed on my pace, how my body feels, how my mind is coping with and responding to the exertion… On the other, I am acutely aware of others in each frame between the first stride and the last.
As well as the heady mix of comfort and exhilaration, exhaustion and mind games, my race is a kaleidoscope of vivid images. The lady I encourage at 2km. A septuagenarian runner who overtakes me at 3km. The spontaneous cheer for the fast finishers who pass us slower ones with only a kilometre to go. A gorgeous greyhound that bounds along at the 5km mark. Yellow, pink and blue beach huts just before the 6.5km turning point. The contrasting grey sky over the Channel as I dig deep for the last third of the race. A lady stretching out leg cramps at 8km. Encouraging yells from runners, already sporting their finisher’s medal, over for the last 800 metres… And then with fifty metres to go a cheer from Mr M and a friend, the finishing line, stopping my watch, a marshal handing me some water, another a medal,…
As Mr M wrapped a warm top round me and handed me a cup of tea, I was exhausted and elated. My ankle had held out. I could still cover the distance. I could once again claim the epithet “runner”.
My time…? Well, it was the slowest 10K race time I have ever clocked but I did not care. At under 72 minutes, I had broken my realistic post-injury target of 75 minutes. It was also the first proper/10K race I have run in my (late) thirties. And more importantly, it was the first event at which I cared more about the whole experience rather than the finishing time.
In my late twenties I trained to race. I enjoyed the training but it was all done with an eye on improving my personal best or stepping up to a longer distance. With the years though I have let go of the need for trophy-like badges for some imaginary CV and have come to see finishing times for what they are: a snapshot of the many conditions leading up to and on the day itself.
What matters nowadays is my experience of time: how I feel during and after training; how my health has felt in the months since I have regained my fitness; soaking up the changing seasons whilst running in Greenwich Park or on Blackheath; the joy of feeling the wind in my hair… Signing up for a race adds focus to my running but it is not the reason for running. Obviously, I would like to run more efficiently and faster. After all, 65 minutes of exertion and discomfort is less daunting than 70 minutes! But gone are the days when the finishing time is the only achievement. Being healthy and happy; making it to the start line (or even out of the front door on a cold, wet training day); crossing the finish line in one piece; just being a runner… these are the real achievements!
October 25, 2013 § 4 Comments
My wardrobe has inadvertently ‘shrunk’ over the past months. Focussed training to get healthy and race-fit has changed my body shape. So much so that I now only have a handful of clothes that fit me properly. When my body stabilises, I shall take in dresses and skirts and invest in some new basics but in the meantime I am working with a modest capsule wardrobe. This unexpected turn has focussed my attention on a more tedious but surprisingly significant aspect of a sustainable wardrobe: laundry.
Research by some retailers (and detergent producers) suggests that as much as 80% of a garment’s embedded energy is attributable to laundry, which conveniently allows them to shift the burden onto us. Even allowing for the limitations and assumptions involved in such analyses (including about our habits), laundry undeniably impacts on my wardrobe’s environmental credentials. And as it within my control, it deserves closer attention.
Tackling the washing
A M&S commissioned study* into the life cycle of cotton (under)pants revealed that washing and drying account for over 68% of all the embedded energy in the garments, with drying accounting for over 38%. For a pair of polyester trousers the figure is 53%, split almost equally between washing and drying, and with another 12% attributed to ironing. This is only one of many LCA studies but it illustrates why many clothing and detergent retailers now encourage customers to wash at lower temperatures.
My standard range is 30o-40oC with some sensible exceptions. Dish clothes get laundered separately at 50o C (after a good soaking in borax) as do any items worn when we have colds or stomach upsets. For years I have favoured lower temperatures, mostly due to the fibres I wear and risk of colour runs, but also because they save up to 40% energy**.
Hand washing is another way to cut water and energy usage, a suggestion which probably makes many shudder. I have always done a fair bit of hand-washing and perversely it is actually the part of laundry I detest the least. This habit dates back to mum making me wash my bras and stockings in the sink as a teenager because they were delicate and in limited supply. Not only did this habit stick; my love of quality woollen knitwear means I wash more by hand than ever.
Frequency of washing also impacts on a wardrobe’s energy footprint. Now I know there are cultural, geographical and seasonal variations here and I am by no means advocating walking around in dirty clothes or smelly socks but there is such a thing as over-laundering clothes. It is often easier to drop a top in the basket rather than work out whether it just needs airing, a quick hand wash to refresh it or a proper deep clean.
In the context of a wartime-inspired challenge I have wondered how my wartime peers managed to keep their clothes fresh. In those days, most women did the laundry by hand and with only a limited number of clothes, keeping themselves in clean knickers and tops must have been a challenge! Thanks to my shrunken wardrobe I have had some insight into the cleanliness/frequency of laundering dilemma. Changing out of good clothes as soon as I get home certainly helps manage the problem as does the time-honoured practice of airing clothes. I am also occasionally adding teeshirts to my hand washing to bridge the gap between regular machine loads.
And a geeky extra
Finally there is another, admittedly very geeky way of saving energy on the laundry. As most of the UK’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, I only run the washing machine in the evening and at the weekend when many big industrial and commercial electricity users are offline. Having worked on power projects, I know only too well that power plants that provide base load electricity (as opposed to those supplying variable peak load) are more energy efficient. So by timing my laundry carefully, I can trim a little more embedded energy off my wardrobe.
This approach to saving energy is less obvious as it is rarely filters down to domestic electricity bills (unless your tariff is structured to reflect those efficiencies, like Economy 7 in the UK). Also the most energy efficient approach will vary from region to region and even depending on personal circumstances. If I had solar PV panels on the roof, I would launder during the day as electricity from my roof would be more energy efficient than that produced in and transported from a distant base load power plant.
The really bad boy
The real energy culprit in domestic laundry is the tumble-dryer. These machines eat electricity and should really be the first thing to be tackled. I was actually surprised at M&S’ findings as I had always been under the impression that you could not put polyester, viscose or other man-made fibres in the tumble-dryer. Probably another habit I picked up from my mum!
Living in an old house in a damp country I completely understand the appeal of the tumble-dryer. And I have to admit, in 2012, during the endless months of rain, I occasionally resorted to the drying cycle on our washing machine as it took weeks to dry towels and bedlinen. Mostly though I rely on a low-tech clothes horse and accept that the bathroom will never look stylishly empty like those in interior magazines.
The “wobbly thing in the corner” has also been an absolute godsend for air drying clothes in a damp climate. A couple of years ago I hunted online for a centrifugal gravity spinner (like the one my mother had) and discovered to my delight that a couple of companies still make them. They are not exactly stylish or sophisticated appliances but they are worth their weight in gold! Feed a handful of clothes into the drum, close the lid, pop a bowl under the spout, lean down on the machine to stop it wandering across the room and in a couple of minutes it flings out more water than three spin cycles in the washing machine could. Best of all, it reduces air drying time from four days to one.
And then there’s the ironing…
Whilst ironing apparently accounts for some of the embedded energy in our clothes, it is not one I have contemplated at any length for the simple reason that I generally do not bother much with ironing. The only exception, apart from occasionally pressing smart trousers, are Mr M’s work shirts. Even without a detailed analysis, I can work out that 30 minutes of ironing per week is probably less environmentally damaging than taking the shirts to the laundry and getting them back swathed in plastic!
Having reflected on my laundry habits and the progressive tweaks I have made, I have realised that laundry – like most things – is actually quite an interesting topic. It is only the relentless nature of the piles of ‘dirty’ clothes that makes it feel tedious…
* Taken from Streamlined Life Cycle Assessment of Two Marks & Spencer plc Apparel Products by Environmental Resource Management for M&S Plc (2002).
** According to the Energy Savings Trust.
As my body shape is changing, I have avoided using valuable coupons on anything but essentials. Five went on a pair of black leather lace-ups as my old pair of brogues were beyond repair. And I spent another six coupons on two pairs of knickers. Like most women I buy my undies in multi-packs so they wear out in batches. I therefore invested in a couple of organic cotton knickers in Luva Huva‘s sale and also made a pair myself out of left-over organic cotton jersey to save on coupons. Stitching your own undies is surprisingly easy but it does take a while to get used to wearing Lycra-free ones!
Total coupons used to date: 42.5.
September 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Despite its foreboding nature I love this time of year. The nip in the air and dark evenings are a precursor of the cold dark months to come but in daylight nature’s bounty is visible everywhere. So, with harvest festival approaching, it is good time to reflect on the rich and varied yields from our garden.
Merits of measuring
This season I have been keeping a sowing and harvesting log to encourage greater diligence with successional sewing. The first takes the form of notes scribbled in a small, soil smudged Moleskine. The latter is more 21st century: Capital Growth’s Harvest-ometer.
The sowing log has not exactly resulted in the fortnightly sowings that many authors recommend but has allowed me to fill in gaps as soon as they appear with seedlings that are big enough to tough it out in a busy space. The waves of seedlings have also made me better at selecting only the strongest ones for planting out.
Although it has its limitations, especially in terms of varieties, the Harvest-ometer has given me a much better feel for the volume of produce we are achieving from our micro-plot. By mid-September we had harvested almost 18kg of vegetables and herbs, with a nominal value of just over £95.
The numbers are of course only part of the story. If I had been more successful with mixed leaves the overall weight might be lower but value would be higher, bearing in mind how much shops charge for small bags of salad leaves. Similarly, before the growing year is out there should be more potatoes and tomatoes to harvest, pushing the overall volume up significantly but not necessarily the value.
And then there are the unquantifiable yields that my logs do not capture: the number of times I have headed into the garden in a mood only for it to dissipate within 20 minutes of sowing, planting or thinning out; the intense fibrous, sweet or bitter flavours you only experience from freshly picked produce; the satisfaction of knowing that every pound of produce from the garden is one in the eye for the powers-that-be and corporate interests that cling to the agribusiness model…
A harvest of lone ingredients and healthy meals
After the long hungry gap, my heart leapt in spring at being able to add a single homegrown ingredient to a meal. In recent weeks, however, homegrown produce has often made up more than half of our evening meal. Last Friday I hit a particular high when I served chard-o-pita (an English take on a Greek spanakopita) with a plate of mixed leaves, tomatoes, baby carrots, garlic… Apart from the pepper, filo pastry and a couple of ounces of goat’s cheese the whole meal came frame the raised beds and pots in our tiny garden.
As chard and kale have grown particularly abundantly, I have built up a repertoire of recipes based on them, from chard cakes to kale or chard pies. Mr M’s particular favourite is kale, chard and goat’s cheese empanadas. Any goat’s cheese will do but for an extra tangy kick I like to use tomette bleue. And for a crunchy healthier pastry, I use olive oil instead of butter or lard and add a handful of polenta to the flour. These über-fresh mini pasties stuffed with healthy greens make a perfect light evening meal and with only two mouths to feed there are always leftovers for lunch the next day!
Potatoes have been another success story. I know some patio gardeners do not bother with spuds in a small space but in my book they are definitely worth it. For one, I like the idea as of growing some of our own carbohydrates – no carb-free diets in our house! And as potatoes score best in terms of calorific value to acreage (or rather square footage), I include earlies and maincrop in our garden. As a result, apart from two King Edwards for baking, we have not had to buy any potatoes since late June.
One of my favourite mid-week meals is pickled herring served with new potatoes, boiled beetroots and a dollop of soured cream with dill. It is a ridiculously simple supper and when I harvest the beetroot young, takes no time to prepare but allows us to enjoy the concentrated flavour of really fresh hearty vegetables.
And then there’s the learning…
Another intangible yield from the garden is the learning that I pick up along the way. This is not limited to horticultural knowledge but includes the wealth of understanding and insights gleaned from watching and analysing the plants, soil, elements, garden visitors… and their relationships. One such insight has changed my life, almost overnight!
Back in early July I panicked at the sight of my potato plants. My first thought was “No, please not the blight!” but after closer inspection and a lot of research, I concluded that they were suffering from a lack of magnesium. I spent hours learning about the role of magnesium in photosynthesis and how to boost concentrations in the soil.
As I was wandering back from the pharmacy a couple of days later with a bag of Epsom salt for a plant feed, a memory stirred. Over twenty years ago my family GP had prescribed a magnesium supplement for me. As I could not remember why, I dug a little deeper into the nature and importance of magnesium. The symptoms of human magnesium deficiency were astoundingly familiar and the NHS advice that a balanced diet provides enough of this mineral was of little reassurance. As nuts are out of bounds, I need to rely on whole grains and leafy greens (and the occasional square of dark chocolate). However, if the vegetables in my organically tended garden are suffering from a lack of this nutrient, what chance does produce grown in fields depleted from decades of mono-cropping stand?
Although I prefer to get my vitamins and other nutrients from food rather than pills, I went back to the chemist the next day for a magnesium supplement. Within a couple of days of taking only a third of the recommended daily allowance, the transformation was astonishing. It was as if a turbo charge had kicked in: I suddenly had an abundance of energy. If magnesium is having this effect on me, I cannot wait to see what it will do to my potato and tomato harvest this year!
July 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
It has been a quiet couple of months sartorially speaking. As recently I have spent a lot of time gardening, tackling DIY jobs and running, my wardrobe has revolved around a battered old denim skirt and Mr M’s defunct city shirts or my mismatched selection of Lycra. And when I ventured out to meet people, I donned my existing cotton and linen skirts and shifts. We may have just experienced a few blazingly hot weeks but as the British summer is notoriously short and precarious, I see little point in investing in an extensive summer wardrobe at the best of times. And certainly not when I am rationing new purchases!
That said, I have invested in a few new items, all of which will see at least nine months’ service per year and illustrate some of the practical and psychological challenges of living on a strict ration: two pairs of socks, the yarn for a scarf and a dress.
Needs versus wants
Self-imposed clothes rationing forces me to distinguish between needs and wants, as well as consider the real meaning of need. This process has been a little disarming. Not because I am particularly profligate at the best of times but as I have the luxury of being able to explore this distinction, it is obvious that there are very few additional things I truly need, unlike those living on or below the poverty line.
It is, of course, very easy to persuade ourselves that something is necessary, rather than desirable (even without the omnipresent advertising industry). What is more, there are sound reasons why distinguishing between needs and wants, or rather the continuum from bare essentials to superfluous desires, is complex. We are social animals with what Maslow called a “Hierarchy of Needs”. Once our physiological needs are met and we have achieved a basic level of security, we need a sense of belonging as well as self-esteem and respect, and clothes can and do play some role in meeting these needs. I am not talking about the extremes, like the latest bag to be considered cool or a new frock for every event, but simple things like a sturdy pair of shoes for allotment work or country walks when visiting my sister, a smart outfit for interviews or meetings…
In the context of this year of rationing, I am prioritising replacements of essentials (like underwear) and basic staples but am also allowing myself to indulge sensible aesthetics where possible. In practice, this means most of my acquisitions are very practical, like the two pairs of running socks I bough this months. Dull as this purchase was, I had no qualms about it as I finally relegated three pairs of 8-year old, de-elasticated, threadbare, paper thin socks to the compost heap.
Rationing has not only made me think about the relative necessity of each potential purchase individually; I am aware that I am also considering what needs are likely to arise in the coming months so I can reserve enough coupons for them. For example, it is touch and go whether my running shoes will limp on till December and many of my knickers have started to reach the end of their useful life. I therefore reckon I shall need to reserve about 11 or 14 coupons for such mundane items.
Frivolity and treats
To meet higher Maslowian needs we also need to feel presentable, confident, attractive… Whilst frivolous unconsidered purchases are out on rationing, that does not mean there is no scope for treats that help achieve those psychological and aesthetic considerations.
In some ways, really thinking about how much I shall use an item means I am only buying clothes that work for me, my body and my life. No “maybe one day I shall really be able to fit into them properly” trousers or impractical silk dresses. Instead, I am prioritising well cut items made from good quality cloth, in attractive colours that I know I shall wear often and will make me feel good on a regular basis. Like the dress to I bought to replace my faded black wrap dress. As it is in the same style as another dress of mine (but a completely different colour), I know I shall get a lot of wear out of it. **
Thanks to my knitting skills I am also able to inject a little frivolity in my wardrobe despite this challenge. As cloth and yarn need to be paid for in coupons just like ready-to-wear items, I have had to slow my pace of knitting. This year, therefore, I am focussing on sumptuous yarns and more intricate patterns, like in the scarf I finished in June (just before the heatwave hit!). It may have taken me three times as long as normal but the end product is a beautiful scarf with a vintage shell-like pattern, knitted with gorgeous organic wool in a wonderful mix of blue, green and brown. It is the complete antidote to a frivolous purchase. Rather, I see it as an item that combines practicality with whimsy and turns a mundane item into a real treat!
A frivolous afterthought
I have found another way to inject some frivolity in this year of rationing, taking inspiration from my wartime peers. During the war women still made every effort to look glamourous, leading to some homegrown solutions when make-up was scarce.
Now I have never been one for the overpainted look and fortunately I do not need to resort to beetroot juice on my lips but I have found myself using make-up more regularly this year. As this Wartime Wardrobe Challenge is about considering and limiting resource consumption, I have not rushed out to buy loads of cosmetics though. Instead I am blending my eye and lip products more to make the most of my capsule wardrobe.
Under my “replacement only” policy, I am allowed to replace an eye shadow that accidentally fell into the litter tray. I could have wept when a particularly useful shade – which doubled up as a blusher – crumbled in Dante’s loo. To prevent any further accidental waste I have created a little luxurious make-up corner on my chest of drawers. I have even treated myself to a magnifying mirror so my “precious” cosmetics no longer need to venture into the bathroom.
* Taken from Wikimedia Commons
** I have not included a picture of my new frock at this stage, as the ecological considerations that went into it merit a post to themselves.
The two coupons for socks, two for the scarf and seven for the dress bring my total coupon spend to of 31.5, just under half my allowance.
Overall I have saved 32 coupons by making do and mending, including partly unpicking and re-knitting a jumper that was not working for me, and have saved a further 5.5 coupons by making two bras from scratch.
I have bought eight items this year (two T-shirts, a bra, a pair of woollen stockings, a slip, two pairs of socks and a dress) as well as the yarn for a scarf.
In total I have spent £174 on these new purchases, which is about one third of the annual clothing budget cited in Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research into the Minimum Income Standard, i.e. the minimum needed in the UK for a “socially acceptable life”.
Admittedly I am not going to win any prizes for elegance in my gardening, DIY or running apparel but at other times I have not looked tatty or unkempt for maximising the wardrobe I have. In fact, I doubt friends not reading this blog would spot any difference.
The self-imposed restrictions (quantity, environmental credentials and ethical considerations) have definitely made me more creative about meeting as many of my needs myself. It has also crystallised what trade-offs I am and am not prepared to make, fuelling creative solutions further.
Midway through the year with just over half my coupon allowance left, I have also found myself thinking not just about how to budget wisely to accommodate “cold and damp busting” clothes for the remainder of the year but how I might cope with rationing for successive years – which was the reality in Great Britain from 1941 to 1949!
July 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
What a difference a couple of months make! Back in April, when the tulips had barely peaked through the soil and the only colour in the garden was the purple and white of winter flowering violets, I thought summer and home grown produce would never arrive. Then, sometime in May, the garden shot into life and colour and by June the cropping had started in earnest.
A highly productive square metre
The first arrivals were the plump hot radishes, a few pea shoots and handfuls of sage, mint and thyme. Since then the chard has transformed itself from spindly yellow and red seedlings into confident stalks and vigorous leaves. The cavalo nero, which stood six inches tall when it went dormant over winter, has turned into deep green plumes and is interspersed with the occasional burst of orange from self-seeded calendula. Then there is the deep burgundy of the beetroots! The salad leaves have given way to adult ones and roots the size of golf balls. And that is just the one metre square raised bed!
The secret of this trio’s success undoubtedly lies in the compost. Last autumn we dug in our first batch of home-made organic matter. In a small north easterly facing patio garden making compost is a lengthy affair. Waste free eating habits and limited prunings means filling a compost vat takes time. Add to that a lack of sun, in general and last year in particular, and the result is painfully slow aerobic digestion. However, good things are worth waiting for and the small quantity of compost we dug into the raised bed and ‘front garden’ has turbo charged these growing plots.
The front plot: a colourful campaign
The front plot – all 2 by 8 foot of it – is home to a mix of fruit, vegetables and flowers. The gooseberry bush continues to go from strength to strength whilst a dozen garlic bulbs have grown plump and pungent below the soil. After the daffodils had bloomed, I planted out bean seedlings, first half a dozen broad beans, later a wigwam with runner beans.
The decision to grow vegetables in this tiny space was driven by two considerations. Despite now having an allotment, I still want to grow as many vegetable as possible on my doorstep, particularly as the heavy clay soil of our plot has limited this year’s efforts to tough or ground hogging vegetables and some inherited fruit. More importantly, I want my neighbours to see how easy it is to grow your own food, even in the smallest of spaces, and maybe inspire some of them to do the same.
Despite its size our front garden is not just limited to edibles. Flowers have found their way in by design and serendipity. The honeysuckle – a gift from the lovely L in memory of my dad – has established itself nicely and produced flowers for the first time this year. The opposite corner is a feast for my eyes and the local bumblebees thanks to the vibrant oranges of the eschscholzia. These annuals deserve a medal for their self-sufficiency. Last year’s flowers self-seeded and produced twice as many flowers this year! Add to them the deep orange calendulas I sowed for aphid control and, since last week, a few deep blue cornflowers. Together with the pots of lavender, tomatoes, beans and cosmos on the front path and steps, this ‘front garden’ is proving that size is no bar to abundance.
The joy of enough
I have been thinking about abundance a lot recently. A part of me still longs for a more rural life, in a small house with a larger garden. One with space for a greenhouse and a variety of plantings to carry us through the year, both in terms of food and spirit-enhancing colour. Although leaving London for a quieter life and fresher air is still the long-term plan, I am aware that my relationship with our patio garden and tiny front plot has changed.
I consider myself very lucky to have a garden at all, let alone one I love as much as I do. And my luck does not stop there as I am very fortunate to have an allotment too. Their combined growing area may not amount to a small holding but they are more than enough.
We will never feed ourselves all year round from these spaces but individually each plot offers plenty of scope for abundance. An abundance of potatoes, roots, kale, tomatoes, beans, courgettes, berries, flowers, exercise, fresh air, time out from work, time together with Mr M, intriguing insects, engaging birds (from the curious robin to the brazen jays)… With such a wealth of delights how could enough not be a good thing?
June 10, 2013 § 4 Comments
I have been contemplating life a lot this past week. Hardly surprising as that was her name.
Last Monday we had to ask the vet to put Zoë to sleep. We knew it was coming. She had recovered well from her operation but the cancer was malignant and aggressive and it would only be a matter of time. Our main concern in the past months had been whether we would know when it was time? The last thing we wanted was for our companion to suffer. When the time came, it was sudden and obvious. At five o’clock our pussycat was staring lovingly at me purring away, by supper time she was uncomfortable and lethargic and by seven she, Mr M and I were with the vet, who had very kindly extended her opening hours.
The evening passed in a fragile blur: a toast to our moggy and a meal that neither of us really tasted, Mr M slipping Rutter’s Requiem into the CD player and Dante looking even more confused than normal.
Zoë, and her son Dante, entered our lives over two years ago, six weeks after dad’s untimely death. Determined not to spend another week in Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, she persuaded us with tarty head rolls to take her and her ‘problem boy’ home. We called her Zoë, the Greek for life. A beautiful name for a gorgeous cat and a reminder that even in the darkest days life persists.
And persist it did. Zoë and Dante helped coax me back to life after losing dad. Her personality – part staid but eccentric dowager, part frolicsome kitten – nurtured a love of life in me that for too long had been stamped out by the demands of my job.
Death however is the flip side of life and its spectre appeared in March in the cruelest of manners. The nature and timing of Zoë’s illness could not have been more poignant and whilst she was in hospital, the memories of mum were swirling in my head. To our delight our cat survived the operation and returned home to await the results and recover in comfort. Then we learnt that she would only have two or three more months and once again the memories of my mother’s final years engulfed me.
Zoë, however, was a trooper. Our tijgerinnetje (aka little tiger, a cute Dutch word that Mr M adopted) made a spirited recovery from the surgery. Her appetite, and the tarty head rolls with which she begged for food, returned and before long she was scampering around chasing shadows again. Purrs, cuddles and straddling the armchair and sofa were her specialities. Just like my mum, our moggy was not waiting for death, she lived and enjoyed life to the end!
The (impending) loss of a loved one is a reminder of how precious life is. Zoë’s departure has reminded me once again that we all live with the certainty of death and that ultimately timelines and forewarning do not really matter. What does is how we live while we are here and the joy, kindness and support we bring. Focussing on that feels like a good way to pay homage to Zoë, as well as mum and dad.