Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Difference A Week Makes

Title shamelessly stolen from Carole Matthews' book, 'The Difference A Day Makes', which I recommend to anyone out there as a book to curl up with for some me-time and a cup of tea in front of a fire under a homespun blanket. Failing that, under the covers on a grey Saturday.

So last Tuesday I planted some seeds and seedlings in various places. And lo! they have grown! I feel like a child, giddy with excitement. They've GROWN! That may sound obvious, but I haven't done any gardening before, pretty much ever. The seedlings have got so big I'm going to have to move them to bigger containers (which the Mother Goddess of Noobie Gardeners has provided for me. In the basement.) I'm thinking I'll be able to start harvesting yummy salads from them very shortly.

The seeds have sprouted, and are nearly ready to be planted up into bigger pots. (I'm using pots made from newspaper, for which I shall provide instructions at a later stage.) I put them in my bedroom cupboard to germinate, it being warm and dark in there, and I was really surprised by (a) how quickly they grew and (b) how quickly they turned green once brought out onto the windowsill. It took a matter of hours. This morning they're already looking lush.

So I've located some containers - notably the boxes you get wine bottles in, as my landlord buys a lot of wine and never seems to throw away the boxes. He has kindly donated a couple to the cause of a fruitful-looking terrace. I've still got to get some potting compost, but I've found a really cheap source, so that looks like it might still be doable. And I think I might let myself get tempted into buying some rocket seedlings, if any look nice. Given that seedlings are €1,10 for six, and the last bunch have flourished like nothing you've ever seen before. I might, in fact, be able to have a proper salad garden this year. I wonder how much a tomato plant costs...

For future reference, I think it is probably advisable for people in my position to buy seeds of things you want multiples of (salad leaves, carrots in my case) and young plants of things you only want one of (herb plants) as I now have about ten very small oregano plantlings, but still no usable oregano. But, going by the miracle of recent growth, it may not be long before I've got more than I know what to do with. How do you go about drying herbs, I wonder? And what crafty things can I get up to with oregano? Hmm...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Make Your Own: Butter

When life gets you down, churn butter. It somehow tastes so much better than shop-bought, as well as being cheaper. This is the second time I've churned butter, and this batch is even better than the last! I still need to work on my butter-making skills, but I'm definitely on the way.

For those who have not yet discovered this, butter is made from cream. You take normal cream and agitate it, traditionally in a butter churn but in my case in a sterilised used jam jar. The cream becomes whipped cream, then gathers together and then you can hear the lump of coagulating butter sploshing around in the buttermilk. Agitate until the butter and buttermilk are, like, totally separate. Pour off the buttermilk and retain it for later use. Add some water to the butter in the jar, agitate further, pour off the buttermilky-watery mixture. You've got to wash all the buttermilk out of the butter to stop it going rancid quickly. (This is one of the bits I haven't perfected yet.) Then you squeeze the water out of the butter by smashing it around with a wooden spatula on a wooden chopping board held at an angle over the draining board/sink, and pat it into, well, a pat of butter with two wooden spatulas (or Scotch hands, if you have them!). This is another of the bits I haven't perfected yet - my butter is still wet. But it tastes fine!

You can add salt, as a preservative, and herbs and things for flavour. I have not yet experimented with this, as my herb garden is still in the nursery stage.

Churning the butter can take ages, but the two key things are to use cream that's a few days old, and not too cold (ie not straight from the fridge). Good thing to do whilst sitting in front of the tv.

Regarding the buttermilk, it has many potential uses. You can drink it, although I don't like the taste. It is good for use in baking, making pancakes and similar, and is apparently also good in ice cream and smoothies. The internet tells me it is good in 'cream of' soups and in sauces. It is also apprently good for your skin, and I've seen it used in cleansers, moisturisers and treatments for sunburn. I'm going to try putting a bit on my face this evening, and seeing how that feels...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Small Differences

So today, for a variety of small reasons all mounting up, I've been feeling a bit down. The fates have an acute sense of timing, and I will find myself unemployed in a terrifyingly short space of time at a moment when I really can't run back to my parents place and hide under the covers, which has always been my Plan B up to this point. It's not just that I can't, but that I don't want to be dependent on them. I want to find a way to make the life I want in the place I want, which right now is here. However, the Gods of the Job Market have their own priorities right now, which include laughing in my face a lot.

As a by-product of this, budgeting is getting tighter and tighter, and I'm looking towards a summer in which I will struggle to eat a balanced diet, and it certainly won't be organic. The budget has also proved a stumbling block in some of my other project areas. For example, growing my own food: I need to invest in containers and potting compost, as I can't compost my kitchen scraps (grrrrlandlordgrrrrrr) and also in seeds and seedlings. I've got some growing, but they'll need potting up into larger containers at some point, and I might just have to risk the landlord's wrath and plant them on the edge of the lawn. I'd love to make my own clothes and soft-furnishings, but as I don't have any worn out clothes to play with, I'd have to buy fabrics, and I'd also have to buy a sewing machine. (More on my lustings after a Singer sewing machine later).

All this means that many of the things that make me smile and feel that I'm making a difference in the world, many of the projects which were making me skip with anticipation, will have to be put on hold for probably a good long while. Although I will almost certainly be asking Father Christmas for a Singer sewing machine for Christmas.

However, I was procrastinating by reading some of the old posts on No Impact Man's blog, and thinking gloomily that the tea in my mug was neither fair-trade nor organic, and could only be called local in comparison to Mars. And I came across this post. It's a beautiful parable, and I'm going to ask myself to think of one thing I've done each week which has made a small difference.

This week, I cycled to work instead of taking the tram. That's a small change, but a change.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Make Your Own: Laundry Detergent

I've been making my own laundry detergent for several months now, and it's working fabulously. Not only is it cheaper and more environmentally-friendly, it's also more effective than the cheap supermarket-brand detergent I was using before. It's removed tea and tomato stains without any additional stain removers! Well, almost. I can just make out where they were, but they're barely visible.

It's so easy, as well. I haven't been able to find borax yet, as it's not in any dictionary I've found, but I've been using a combination of grated soap and washing soda. It takes about 5 minutes to make up a new batch, as I've just done, and a new tub-full will last about 3 weeks (it's a small plastic tub). I'm experimenting with using less and less of the detergent, and it's still cleaning effectively, so I might be able to make it last longer.

The only problem I've had is that I really notice the absence of fabric conditioner, but I've read that vinegar can work well. I've tried apple cider vinegar but it seemed to stain the washing machine (according to the landlord, anyway), but perhaps white wine vinegar would work. Watch this space!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Spring Planting

Inspired by the Brownies last week, who planted cress and sunflowers, I have finally got around to planting something. If you want to get a sense of my horticultural exerptise, check out the archive for the saga that was my War On Aphids. I lost. Epically.

So this year, I have of course been even more rash and ambitious. Instead of buying a handy potted herb almost ready for harvesting, I have bought a combination of seeds and seedlings. I am having a go at a couple of different lettuce varieties, along with herbs (basil and oregano) and spinach.

I am also trying out two different germination environments. Well, different mediums. Media. Whatever. One being potting compost in a home-made newspaper seed starter pots (which I made according to instructions found on a website which no longer exists), the other being pellets of compost which sort of expand when you water them, and turn into the soil-equivalent of high-rise buildings. You stick a seed on top, leave them in the beautiful and stylish (not) green plastic tray, and wait for germination. Which should be more visible than in soil, which is all good for the newbie here, but I'm getting impatient already...

I'm planning on taking a trip out to the fleamarket on Saturday and seeing what I can find by way of cheap containers for planting out in, given that the landlord won't permit me to plant in the soil itself. And buying naff plastic pots is (a) a waste of money (b) not very environmentally friendly and (c) just naff. I've got a few I'm using as a stop-gap, but they won't be permanent! Hopefully by that time I'll have some sort of functioning camera, so I can share them with you.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Craft Workshops

Hello! I am still alive, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief. Life caught up with me, so I do in fact have a long list of blog posts I'd like to make on various topics, some of which are looooong overdue. Like this one.

As part of my interest in the journeys that our possessions take from the extraction or production of the raw materials through to the disposal of the used product, I am just a little bit interested in craft. I work with wool, and I am interested in all of the stages of the process from fleece to jumper. When I started working with Sunbeams, a Brussels-based charity promoting ecological issues in the English-speaking expatriate community here, I mentioned my interest in craft, and eventually we organised a Christmas Craft workshop.

It was a really good fun afternoon. There were several different activities going on, and the group of children moved naturally and easily from one to another as each was completed. Most of these involved using items that would normally end up in the bin - the insides of toilet paper rolls, scrap paper, and especially Christmas wrapping paper. My own contribution was introducing them to crochet, making creations vaguely resembling snowflakes. I did find that teaching crochet to that age group was rather tricky, as you can't do any of the fun stuff, but that's just something I need to work on.

I really enjoyed learning to make, for example, plaited heart-shaped bags to hang from the tree, using old wrapping paper. And I loved sharing my passion with a group of little people, who were all really proud of their creations. I think what made the craft afternoon so successful was that there was a range of different activities, so that the pressure didn't fall on any single person to keep people interested for the whole afternoon, and that it had a fairly specific focus. The range of activities also meant that people could arrive and leave whenever suited them, and do as many or as few projects as they wanted to, as quickly or as thoroughly as they liked.

I have attempted to get a craft workshop focused on crochet up and running, but I think the brief has been too vague and I haven't reached my target audience very effectively. Looking back at the success of this workshop, I think it would be advisable to choose a specific brief and bring together people interested in different crafts for a similar afternoon. Hmmm... It's a shame I missed the boat for Easter, but perhaps a Midsummer festival theme would work. Feel free to contribute suggestions.


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