There’s no road map to the path I’m forging. No one’s footprints to follow, only my own uneven tread.
Progress is more of a spiral than a straight line: a slide backwards reminding me of why I need to keep pushing forward, a stumble another lesson (re)learnt.
What matters is to keep on walking.
Seeds: they are amazing. That these tiny things hold within themselves the complete potential for an enormous tree, beautiful flower or delicious vegetable is a wonder of nature and evolution.
That anyone can harvest a seed, plant it, and grow plants to feed themselves is an extraordinarily beautiful thing. Seeds are part of our heritage, our culture, our civilisation. Without the ability to cultivate plants from seed we’d never have formed agricultural societies, and without agricultural society you would not be reading this.
Seeds are integral to what it means to be a modern human; to how we feed ourselves, how we structure our societies, how we manage our land and other natural resources. Such tiny things are so critical to who we are and how we live.
Seeds are important, and they are under threat.
I’ve written before about how important crop diversity is. Why it matters to grow rare and heirloom vegetables, and to save seed to cultivate plants best suited to local conditions. The maintenance and continual evolution of plant genetic diversity is critical to food security, to making sure we can feed ourselves and future generations.
The science behind this is incontrovertible.
That’s why I was horrified to find out about the proposed EU regulation “On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material” (aka the Plant Reproductive Material Law). Under the legislation, any seeds sold commercially must:
- belong to an acceptable variety or clone that has been registered with the UN;
- comply with the specific requirements adopted for the marketing category of that plant; and
- comply with legislated labelling, handling, certification and identification requirements.
i.e. for an annual fee and a pile of paperwork, you can be permitted to sell your seeds. Maybe. If the government decides your plants meet the registered “definition” for that variety.
What does a plant definition mean anyway? That means the seeds can’t show much genetic deviation from the registered type specimen for that variety, retarding development of strains and varieties that suit local conditions. That means restricting genetic diversity and increasing susceptibility to disease and climatic changes.
Although these laws don’t apply to backyard gardeners like me, they do apply to anyone in the EU who grows plants or distributes seeds for commercial sale. That includes your market stall holder, local nursery, native plant suppliers and market gardeners.
Why does this bother me? Because we’re letting politicians decide what constitutes a valid variety of food plant; because we’re stifling innovation and local adaptation, and at the same time reducing plant diversity; because the law gives advantage to large corporations who can manage the administrative imposts and pay the registrations, not to mention lobby governments over the very definitions of “acceptable varieties”.
Companies with have a track record of patenting plant genomes (making a food crop somehow “copyright”) and taking farmers to court who accidentally sow their seeds[3, 5,6]. Companies that deliberately push genetically modified (GM) crops that cannot be bred by farmers, forcing them to continue buying seed from Monsanto every year and preventing the development of new varieties and the adaption to local conditions.
Monsanto alone is alleged to have lodged 144 seed patent infringement lawsuits in the US thus far.
These companies aren’t in the business of protecting biodiversity. They don’t believe fair and free access to seeds is a fundamental principle of human rights. For these corporations, the narrower the range of crops and the less adaptable the plant genetics, the more opportunities they have to make profits by developing and selling copy-righted seeds. If we lose our ability to develop and distribute locally-adapted and unusual varieties, we lose control of our food sources, we lose our ability to develop crops that suit our soils, climate and cultural traditions and grow dependent on the corporations to sell us patented seeds to feed ourselves. Patented seeds the farmer cannot harvest and re-sow, sold for maximum profit, from the narrow range of crops that these companies invest in.
That’s a pretty scary road to be travelling down.
The science of genetically modifying, or engineering, plant materials forms part and parcel of the debate about seeds. GM science gets all caught up in the politics and corporate sociopathy, but it’s vital to examine the science in its own right. The science of GM is neither good nor evil; it’s how it’s applied that determines that.
GM: genetically modified. What does that mean? It means humans have messed around with a plants genome, the DNA that codes how that plant grows, what nutrients it has, how sensitive it is to chemicals, how tolerant of certain conditions. The genome that is copied into a plant’s reproductive materials: its seeds. The agri-corporations are using GM science to develop plants that are resistant to specific herbicides, usually owned by the same company, like Monsanto’s Round-up and their GM “Roundup Ready” seeds.
GM science can also be used to develop crop strains that can be grown in new areas, places too dry, too wet, or with soil too poor to grow traditionally-bred varieties. It can be used to reduce reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, to increase crop yields, to improve nutrition and to develop plant resistance to famine-causing diseases.[4,7] The scientists working on GM foods are doing so because they see the science as a powerful tool for helping to feed a growing global population in an uncertain future, and maybe there’s a place for GM in the world-feeding toolbox. There’s just not when it’s in the hands of vested interests.
GM’s still a relatively new science too, and we’re not sure what the long term effects of GM foods might be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on the science though: it means we should be cautious and make sure the long-term studies and trials are done before we leap into GM cropping. That’s not what’s happening though, with the agri-corps pressuring government to permit GM seeds on the market before these (costly, long-term) studies are done. GM might not be evil, but right now there are a lot of good arguments for caution and maintaining large agricultural areas that are completely areas GM-free.
So what does all this mean?
To me, all of this shows how important it is that the community is informed, aware and involved in the business and politics of seeds. It’s too big an issue to leave to the lobby groups and politicians: all of our futures are caught up in the incredible potential of seeds.
Concerned? Take the time to get informed and make sure your voice gets heard.
I’m keeping an eye on the EU legislation and have signed the international petitions against the proposed EU legislation here (AVAAZ) and here (Noah’s Ark Foundation).
I’m also paying attention to the discussions happening here in Australia around GM crops, agribusiness and associated legislation. Here in Tasmania our temporary ban on GM crops is due to expire next year, and there’s good reason to get involved in local action campaigning for a renewal.
Seeds belong to all of us. It is critical to the future of humanity that this remains the case: that we can breed, grow and freely trade the food plants that best suit our climates, cultures and local conditions to ensure a future where we’re all well fed.
 The European Commission (2013) Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council – On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law); European Commission, Brussels.
 Rabesandratana T (2003) Overhaul of E.U. Seed Regulations Triggers Protests; Science magazine; American Association for the Advancement of Science.
 Cornell University Law School (2013) Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto Company in first sale doctrine patent exhaustion infringement; Legal Information Institute, Cornell University.
 Kruft D (2001) Impacts of Genetically-Modified Crops and Seeds on Farmers; The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, Pennsylvania State University.
 Wikipedia: Monsanto Canada Inc. vs Schmeiser.
 Tepper R (2013) Seed Giants Sue U.S. Farmers Over Genetically Modified Seed Patents In Shocking Numbers: Report, Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com Inc.
 Walsh B (2013) Modifying the Endless Debate Over Genetically Modified Crops; Time Science & Space, Time Inc.
 DPIPWE (2009) Policy Statement: Gene technology and Tasmanian Primary Industries 2009-2014; Policy Division, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmanian Government.
I’ve been working on a serious post on seed legislation, GM crops and sustainability, but it’s going to take me a little longer to finish. I’m struggling to find time to research the issue thoroughly and I really want to make sure I’m properly informed. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote a little while ago and didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully I’ll have some science-based content ready for you soon! T.
Recently I realised, really properly realised, that my life is completely dependent on modern technological society.
It’s something I’ve been aware of, to some extent, but it’s only now that it’s really clicked how total that dependency is. I’m not talking the small stuff, like how I derive my income, clothe myself and support my lifestyle. I’m not talking about the medium stuff, like my dependence on modern agriculture, transport, water and sanitation systems. Yes, if those systems collapsed right now I’d be in a lot of strife. Our society would fail and life would be extremely different and difficult, but it wouldn’t kill me. The loss of modern medicine? That would.
I am medication-dependent. I have no thyroid gland. We killed mine, modern medicine and I, bombarding it with radiation until my ability to regulate my own metabolism was no more. There was nothing wrong with my thyroid, per se. We killed it because we couldn’t find a way to stop my immune system from attacking it, and with a rogue immune response on the rampage I was pretty sick and would eventually get terminally so or go into thyroid burn-out anyway.
I am medication-dependent. My life depends on the technological-industrial machine. Somewhere they make synthetic thyroid hormone, press it into tablets and pack it into blister-packs of 100 doses. From that somewhere they ship it great distances to my local pharmacy, where it finds its way to me. They need to be refrigerated, my little life pills, as the hormone starts breaking down after two weeks at ambient temperatures.
I am medication-dependent. I need access to a doctor who understands my ailment. I need routine blood tests to confirm my synthetic dose. I need international freight, aluminium blister packaging and refrigeration just to survive. That means I need the mining, mineral processing, manufacturing, petroleum, transport, refrigeration, pharmaceutical and health-care industries so that I can stay alive. I am completely dependent on the system, and that’s a very sobering thought indeed.
If I go off-grid, I get sick and I die.
How many of us are there? Every person with a thyroid condition, with insulin-dependent diabetes, with rheumatoid arthritis or one of hundreds of other non-terminal-if-treated conditions. Millions of us, all dependent on the technological-industrial complex to keep our bodies functioning, to stay alive.
Today I was seriously thinking about my future, about where I want to go, what I want to do with this one precious shot at life. I want to change the world, but at the same time I have to live within it. I could choose to reject this modern technological society, to live outside it, truly sustainably and free, but to do so would, ironically, be choosing to die.
A grim choice, indeed, but one I’m lucky to even be able to make because I had the good fortune to be born here, in the turn-of-the-century developed world. I got sick and modern medicine took care of me. For how many others is there no choice at all? No access to the life-saving interventions and drugs we rarely stop to consider? It’s making me stop and really think about what a human life is worth versus the value of our planet and the ecosystems that support the whole 7 billion (and rising) of us. Is it justified, this environmentally-costly medical intervention? I’m certainly very happy to be alive and in good health, and being aware of just how tenuous good health can be, has driven me to make the most of the time I have here, to try to leave the world in a better state, but is my life really worth it? Am I worth the sum of my impacts? Is caring for the sick environmentally sound?
Whatever the answers, I know I’m incredibly privileged to be here, to have the machine on my side. I’m forever grateful to my doctors and for everything that goes into these little white pills that keep me alive. I can’t opt out of the machine now, my life is tied to it, but I can choose what I do with this life. I’m lucky to be here, the least I can do is try to make the world a better place, not just for me, but for everyone.
I have slowly been getting my life back in order and recovering from a little souvenir illness I brought back from Peru. After so many weeks away or otherwise indisposed I feel like the world has got away from me a little.
Still, the list of things to do is – very slowly – getting shorter, as are the days. Although it’s technically still autumn, winter arrived here in Hobart a few days ago. I’ve been enjoying the frosty mornings, cold blue-sky days and crisp, starry nights. Having the wood heater going really does help with enjoying the cooler weather, I must admit, and I’ve purchased another load of ‘sustainably-harvested’ firewood.
Meanwhile there’s always work to be done in the garden, no matter the time of year. I’ve harvested the last of the beans, tomatoes and potatoes, plus the surprise Jerusalem artichokes (thank-you former tenants). While I was gone the lettuce went to seed, so at some point I need to dig the seedlings out of the lawn and find a better place for them. The winter brassicas are coming along nicely too, with staggered plantings of broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussel’s sprouts and tatsoi to get me through the coming months.
Really though I’m looking forward to the slower pace of winter; to quiet nights in front of the fire, slow cooked meals, sleeping in and time spent with good books. The challenge now is making that happen, with everything else I want to do, and still finding time to research and write.
Somehow, though, I always find time to stop and appreciate the beautiful world around me.
What do you like best about winter? Tell me how you celebrate the cold season.
Home again. Hopefully normal blog service will resume shortly, but in the meantime, here’s a little something from my travels…
It was a very intense trip, challenging on many levels. It’s given me a whole lot to think about, but for now I need to focus on unpacking and getting my life back in order here in Hobart.
Meanwhile, how have you been?
This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
It’s that time of year again. The days are still hot, the soil still concerningly dry and the breeze still smells of smoke but they are getting shorter. Summer is slowly sliding into autumn.
The garden knows it. The leaves on the last potatoes have been yellowing. The beans, so prolific this summer, are finishing. A lone pumpkin is beginning to ripen on the self-sown vine. The red winter kale has finally admitted defeat in the face of powdery mildew and aphid attacks and gone to seed. Summer’s bounty is fading.
It’s been an odd growing season, and my first summer here at the Cottage. It was exceedingly hot1 and dry,2 with horrible winds that stripped the moisture out of everything. I don’t like to water much, but even my well-mulched, water-conservative garden has needed a good weekly soaking. The eggplants and chillies enjoyed the heat and I’m looking forward to harvesting a handful of aubergines. The tomatoes haven’t done so well though, or the zucchini: where I was expecting great gluts I’ve ended up scavenging from friends to gather enough for preserving. Still, I’ve had plenty to eat and largely kept myself in veg this summer (with the notable exception of carrots, of which I grew just one).
As the season progressed, so did my weekly harvest!
Now it’s time to prepare the garden for autumn and to stock my stores with the excesses of the summer. Yes, it’s relish time again!
The over-ripe tomatoes I scavenged from a friend’s garden have been turned into jars of rich, summer flavour. Soon that same friend’s surplus giant zucchinis will be cooked up with Indian spices for a spicy savoury relish. A couple of kilos worth of beans – green and scarlet runner – have been chopped and blanched and bagged up in the freezer for winter meals to come, and rhubarb has been stewed and frozen for winter porridge breakfasts. The apples that survived to worst of the weather only to fall prey to codling moth have had the edible parts rescued, been poached in vanilla syrup and stowed away: a delicious sweet treat despite the beasties. A good three kilos of potatoes are paper-wrapped and await a dark place to be stored.
It’s time, now, to prepare the garden for my winter crops. There are beds to dig, seeds to be sown, and if I don’t do it now there will be no backyard harvest through the cooler months. The soil needs a lot of love in places before much of anything will grow, so the compost bin has been shifted and I’m prepping green manure to get some much-needed organics worked in. One over-worked bed will lie fallow this season, then be planted out with herbs come spring.
For now, though, it’s autumn and winter veg I’m thinking of. I have interesting new heirloom seeds to sow: golden beets, fractal (romanesco) broccoli, ruby sprouts, mammoth leeks and purple cauliflower. Poor little plants will need to fend for themselves though, as soon I’m heading overseas again for a while. I’m relying on the kindness of friends and neighbours, on my little community, to tend my garden while I’m gone.
That’s the magic of a garden though: it doesn’t just grow food, it grows connections.3 This summer my surpluses have been shared with others. I’ve traded beans and potatoes for apricots and nectarines. I’ve swapped seeds with other growers. I was given the most amazing types of tomatoes by Pauline Mak and traded garden pest info with Provenance Growers.
My garden does so much more than feeding and nourishing me: it feeds the bees, provides home for the birds, it binds and enriches the fine black soil and it creates places for all sorts of crawlies to scuttle about. It creates a topic of conversation with friends and strangers alike, and allows the free trade of information and sharing of experience. It supports simple acts of giving and sharing and, like the sunflowers blooming down the bottom, spreads a little beauty through the world.
This is what my garden grows.
What about you? What’s happening in your patch right now? Are you starting spring planting? Still awaiting the thaw? Or, like my parents up in south-east Queensland, waiting for the saturated soils to dry out enough to plant?
What do you love about your garden? Tell me, what does it grow?
 Records were set for the hottest single day (41.8oC), the hottest summer overall (highest mean summer maximum) and the number of days above 30oC – source: Bureau of Meteorology.
 Only 39% of our average summer rainfall fell - source: Bureau of Meteorology.
 The social benefits of a garden – source: Irish Food Board.
As may be apparent, 2013 has got off to a busy start for me. Summers in Hobart are jam-packed with things to do, I’ve struggled to find time to write and I’m not as on top of things as I’d like to be.
It can be challenging to maintain balance during busy times and so often I hear people say that they’d like to be more environmentally-sound in their choices but they lead busy lives and they just can’t find the time. And so we let unsustainable choices sneak into our busy lives. We go to the supermarket to do our shopping, instead of visiting the local grocer and the farmer’s market. We drive places instead of cycling or walking. We buy ready-made and processed foods to eat on the run. Gardens get neglected… In the name of convenience, of saving time, we make a thousand small choices that make our lives less sustainable, that lock us in to being busier and busier, that have negative consequences on our health and the health of our planet, our one and only home.
If we really want to make this world, our home, a better place, sustainability needs to be a priority in our lives at all times, especially when we’re tired and stressed. That’s when our bodies and minds are telling us we need to slow down, to rest and to focus on the things that are really important: taking proper care of ourselves and our loved ones. That’s when we really need to nurture ourselves, and we do that best by making sustainable choices, by feeding ourselves wholesome and nutritious food, by connecting with our communities, by ensuring we breathe fresh air and get some exercise, by remembering that living in tune with our beliefs and values actually lowers stress levels and makes us happier.
So stop a while, take a moment to just breathe and remember how it is that you really want to live your life.
Making sustainable choices:
For me, I get through these busy patches by making sustainable choices part of my day’s structure. Daily routines and habits are much easier to maintain than big new changes, so when sustainability is part of your every-day lifestyle, sustainable choices just flow along.
Of course, I don’t have access to an endless well of time so some things do fall by the way-side when I get really busy. It used to be the healthy choices that I let drop. No time for a swim or a bush walk, no energy to cook a proper dinner, and I’ll just finish this or that before I head to bed (oh look, another night of not enough sleep…). Now I’m learning to stay off the computer when I’m tired, that blogging can wait. That I’ll feel better in the morning for cooking a real meal tonight and not opening that bottle of wine. That heading to the pool will clear my head and lower my stress, while an evening on the couch will do the opposite and that no-one is really going to notice if I didn’t do the cleaning this week, but I’m going to feel it I don’t get to the market and stock my kitchen with the sort of food I should be eating.
It’s taken an concerted effort to break these habits and I’m still working on it, but work it does and I’m getting through the busy patches now without dropping the things that really matter to me, without winding up sick and miserable as I push myself too far.
Learning new habits:
- Walk - the daily walk to work is so ingrained into my routines I don’t even think about taking the bus, plus the time and activity help me clear my head for the day ahead. Driving to work or the local shop doesn’t even occur to me now.
- Nourish - it’s very easy when busy to give into the temptation of easy food: processed stuff that will give you a quick energy hit but in the long run is bad for you and the planet (packaging, farming practices, food miles and the rest of it) but preparing and eating real food makes me feel better. When I’m tired and lack the motivation to cook I wander into the garden and find inspiration in what I can harvest there. I also over-cook when I can and stock my freezer with home-made insta-meals to get me through the busy times.
- Prepare - have the little things that help you make the right choices near to hand. I keep fabric shopping bags in places that mean I’ve almost always got one on hand and don’t get caught out needing plastic. I keep my swimming bag packed and hanging my the door. I have raw nuts on hand for snacking. I order seeds so I know I’ll get the garden ready!
- Share - turn chores into a social event by inviting friends, thus helping you to keep the commitment as well as spreading sustainable choices. I make dates with friends to sow the new season’s seeds, to go on foraging missions or get our preserve on to store seasonal surpluses.
- Decide - a friend introduced me to the concept of mindfulness a while back and it’s an amazingly powerful tool I use to keep myself going and being the kind of person I want to be. When I’m tired, grumpy or feeling over it I ask myself who I’m choosing to be, what impact will that choice will have on me? It’s usually enough to get me out and working in the garden or researching sustainability things!
- Stop - I’ve got into the habit now of giving myself a half-hour every evening to just sit and be quiet before bed; time I used to sacrifice in the name of productivity that now allows me to sift through my thoughts and feelings and work out where I’m heading each day. It’s keeping me grounded and has greatly improved the quality of my sleep.
How do you keep yourself on the right path?
I’ve just returned home from a failed attempt to do my usual weekly produce shop down at my local farmer’s market. I go most every Sunday to buy my fruit & veg, perhaps a little free-range meat, and catch up with the friendly faces. Not today though: today it was bedlam as the collective insanity that is Christmas hit the market at full force.
We seem to lose the plot a little at Christmas. I don’t know why. The market was jammed with festive season shoppers, forming huge queues to purchase must-have items like raspberries and cherries. I stood there, watching, feeling totally overwhelmed (I dislike crowds at the best of times) and wondering how much of the food they were buying would just end up as waste. Honestly, who needs 2 kg of raspberries, or 5 kilos of cherries (or in some cases, “and”)? Are they really going to be able to eat them all before they spoil? Who needs all that in one glut anyway, when the fruit will still be available next week, and the week after?
It was enough to get me feeling misanthropic, so I beat a hasty retreat home, brewed a pot of tea, put some calming oil in the burner and some soothing tunes on the stereo. Ah, so much better!
Please don’t lose the plot this Christmas. Remember it’s not about having the most heavily-laden table or all the seasonal goodies. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t found the perfect presents, or if you haven’t bought presents at all. No one cares if you’ve missed out on raspberries this year, or if the panforte didn’t set (sticky, but still delicious!). It’s about spending time with the people who matter to you and celebrating the things that really matter: family, friendship, love.
Please, remember what’s important this season. Be kind to people, slow down, smile. Take your neighbours something from your kitchen or garden. Be nice to the people working to serve you and remember to treat them like the human being they are. Say hello to people you pass on the street: go, on, make eye contact and say it like you mean it! Reach out to others and let them know you care. Take stock of just how lucky we are to be living this life, with all that we have, and do what you can to build the kind of world you want to live it, a place you’d be proud to pass on to your children.
All I want for Christmas this year is a better world: more sustainable, communal, joyful.
Day by day, it’s what I try to build. I think, perhaps, you’d like it too.
On that note, I’m taking some time out in January to focus my energy on other things. I wish you the very best over the holiday season, no matter what your beliefs, and look forward to what 2013 will bring. See you next year!
Tell the people who matter how you feel.
(I have some phone calls to make)
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
“Discipline is remembering what you want, and then acting on it.”
Tasmanians, the Forest Peace Deal Agreement is going through the Upper House, where the legislation will either pass, or crash and burn with a huge loss of public faith and return to community division and ongoing stalemate.
The agreement isn’t perfect, I know, but it’s better than no agreement and it has involved compromise from both sides to reach. We can always build from here and work towards a better agreement once people have adapted to change and seen that the Agreement hasn’t led to wholesale economic collapse. Please don’t ditch the agreement because not every patch of high-value forest is protected, or not every forest job is saved. Extremism will never reach a compromise, on either side. The problems will never be solved by holding out for your own ideal of a successful outcome. Remember that it’s a step in the right direction to building a more sustainable future. The first step, with many more to come as we walk down the path together, as a cohesive community with a shared vision for the future.
Those against the peace deal – those who want unrestricted forestry at any cost, despite the reality of falling demand and industry decline, and those who will not accept that not all high-conservation-value forests can be protected – have mobilised opposition, further feeding bitterness and division in the community. They are petitioning the Upper House to reject the Agreement legislation and they’re creating a lot of noise.
Don’t let division and extremism determine the future of our State. Stand up for working together for long-term, sustainable outcomes for Tasmania. Sign the counter-petition and let our politicians know we support peace in our forests. If we don’t speak up, the voices of conflict will win. Rejection of the Agreement does not benefit anyone. Please raise your voice in support of a more sustainable future for Tasmania.
Don’t be afraid to let your soft side show.
Be vulnerable, believe in love.
Spring is ramping up into summer now. The days are long, the evenings warm and I’m thinking I’ll need to take a hat on my walk to work from now on. With the return of the sun the garden has roused itself and the food growing has begun in earnest.
I’m spending more and more time out there, planting out seedlings, picking things to put on my plate and aiming to keep the mulch in the garden beds and the grass in the lawn. My resident blackbird family disagree with my philosophy of mulching the veggies, preferring instead to spread the stuff over the pavers and lawn, uprooting the occasional seedling in the process. Still, they’ve developed a taste for snails and for that I am grateful: as much as I’d prefer a few native blue-tongue lizards to do the job I’m in the middle of suburbia and can’t provide good lizard habitat.
The garden here is the biggest one I’ve ever taken on, and I’ve surprised myself by already filling up all the existing garden beds and the new one I dug at the bottom of the yard. I’ve planted potatoes and oca, and they take up quite a bit of space! Also in are peas and beans (the peas self-sowed, as did one type of bean, so I’m not sure what I’ve got yet), beetroot (doing well), carrots (doing badly), lettuce (another self-sower) rocket, rainbow chard and the first lot of tomatoes.
Meanwhile, the late seedlings (mostly replacements for what the snails ate the first time) are sitting in an old fish tank on my dining table, waiting to be planted out this weekend. There’s a load more tomatoes, sprouting broccoli, dill, parsley, sunflowers and my coddled tiny eggplants that will go into pots in the greenhouse though I doubt I’ll manage to get fruit of them. Since I’m all out of garden space already I guess I’m going to be digging up more lawn. Luckily my landlord doesn’t seem to mind and lets me do my garden thing (at least so far).
Some things do incredibly well here. Red winter kale continues to come up everywhere, as do borage and calendula. The spuds are thriving and the beans are shooting up quickly. Other things aren’t doing so well, like the strawberries that put out lots of leaf growth but aren’t quite getting enough sun to flower well. The lack of sun has also set some plants back a little: my pea plants are tall and strong but are only now really getting going on flowering, while friends are already harvesting theirs.
Still, it’s beginning looking like a real garden out there. The neighbour’s house might shade it more than I’d like, the soil is still lacking in organic matter and the blackbirds may frustrate my efforts at keeping everything neat and tidy, but it feeds me, both literally and metaphorically. Time in the garden helps to ground me, and the physical work with obvious results is a powerful antidote to the day job, spent sitting behind a computer for far too many hours. Tending the earth has helped to keep me sane while a nasty knee injury has preventing me from hiking and motivated me to get outside and active through stressful times. It’s a very good thing I’m enjoying it, as there’s plenty more work to be done.
Spring has been beautiful in my garden, and now the summer has begun.
What’s growing in my garden this summer? Plants marked * are self-sown or were here when I got here:
- Beans (mix of fresh eating & drying varieties)
- Bok Choi
- Broccoli, sprouting* (also seedlings I’ve grown myself)
- Carrots (barely!)
- Chard, rainbow
- Eggplant, casper
- Kale, curly*
- Kale, red winter*
- Lettuce* (read & green oak & two other mystery non-heading varieties)
- Peas* (mystery varieties)
- Potatoes (blue sapphire, pink fir apple, cranberry red & banana that I put in, plus a white variety* that self-sowed)
- Raspberries* (one here, one I’ve planted)
- Salad burnett
- Wide assortment of herbs (mixed origins)
Tell me, what have you got growing?
Make yourself time to be wild and free.
I believe I’ve mentioned that the gardens here at the Cottage are very good at growing weeds. I’d been working hard to get rid of them up until a couple of months ago when I decided to stop enforcing my idea of order on this patch of earth and work with nature a little more closely. That meant leaving some weeds in place to protect the soils and provide habitat for the creepy-crawlies that will help my garden to grow. So although the mirror-bush seedlings are yanked out as soon as they appear, lesser weeds are allowed to grow where other plants won’t and I started thinking about what makes a plant a weed and wondering what I could do with what the land was providing. So I got to reading, and realised that (along with the fennel) two of my garden weeds were perfectly edible: dandelions and stinging nettles.
Does this look like dinner? Dandelion & fennel from my weedy garden.
I started with the dandelions first, partly because there were more of them, but largely because the stinging part of stinging nettles concerned me. I took to plucking the young dandelion leaves and adding them to my backyard garden salads, pleasantly surprised by the flavour. They taste all green and zingy, something like a cross between rocket (arugula) and nasturtium leaves. Definitely edible, dandelion greens are now part of my culinary world.
The nettles I was less sure what to do with, until Rohan over at Whole Larder Love wrote about making nettle pesto (and if you don’t read Rohan’s blog already, you should. He’s awesome). I was sold on the idea with pesto. All I had to do was let the nettle patch grow until I had enough to try. Then the idea hit: why not mix the nettles with dandelion greens, and throw in some of that fennel that comes up everywhere too? Pest pesto: I had to make it a reality, and so I did.
Nasty spiky stinging nettles: surely not destined for dinner?
I collected all the young dandelion leaves I could find and pulled up fennel seedlings from the front garden, then I donned my trusty gardening gloves and plucked all the nettles (and still managed to sting myself somehow). The ‘lion leaves and fennel were simply washed and chopped, but the nettles needed de-stinging. I simply boiled the kettle and poured the hot, hot water over the spiny things and was hit by the most amazing smell! Like spinach, but earthier, and my senses were telling me most definitely edible! I gingerly poked at the blanched greens to confirm successful de-stinging, then chopped those up too and got on with the pesto-making.
A few cloves of garlic, a good slug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt, pepper and a handful of sunflower seeds later, I had a jug of pest pesto ready to go. Conveniently, it was lunch time, so I threw some gluten-free pasta in the pot, chopped up some other tasty bits and stirred through a couple of generous spoons of my weedy green goo. The verdict? Delicious! Next time though, more nettles and less dandies.
Now I’m waiting for enough nettles to come up to make a second batch. Instead of pulling out the bastards when they pop out of the soil I leave the nettles be and dream of meals to come. From pest to prime ingredient, who’d have thought it?
Hey presto, it’s pest pesto!
Here are a few more benefits to be had from the weeds in your veggie garden:
- Legume weeds like clover add nitrogen to the soil, making more nutrients available for your plants.[1, 2]
- Plants with deep tap roots, like dandelions, break up compacted soils and help your veggies dig themselves in deeper. [3, 2]
- Spiky or pungent weeds can act as pest control, keeping furry and insect nibblers away. [1, 4]
- Some weeds, particularly native species, help to attract beneficial insects into the garden. [1,4]
- Weeds provide vital cover on what would otherwise be bare soils, retaining moisture and adding organic matter, as well as preventing soil compaction and erosion. [3, 2]
- Weeds can confuse pest insects by making it harder for them to find your tasty target plants. 
- Left to grow and then pulled before seeding, weeds can be a free source of mulch and compost. [5, 3]
- Manageable “nice” weeds can out-compete nastier weeds that are harder to control. I’ll take dandelions over thistles any day! 
And of course, leaving selected weeds be means less work for me, and another reason to avoid using herbicides in the garden. A free meal, better soil, happy bugs and more free time? Sounds rather sustainable to me!
What weeds have you learnt to live with, and why?
 Wikipedia on beneficial weeds
 Cocannouer JA (1950) Weeds: Guardians of the Soil; The Devin-Adair Company; Connecticut, USA
 Dave’s Garden Guide
 Hillocks RJ (1998) The potential benefits of weeds with reference to small holder agriculture in Africa; Integrated Pest Management Reviews 3, 155-167
 Gardening Organic UK
Don’t just dream it, do it.
Take that first step today and keep on the journey.
Create your own footprints.
I have a few strange habits:
- I keep every rubber band that enters my house in a container in a kitchen drawer.
- The frilly tulle bags from jewellery shops get tucked into a box in a draw.
- I stack up old egg cartons on top of the fridge.
- Glass jars get washed up and stowed in a box under the table.
- A pretty box in the study stores used wrappings, packaging and ribbons.
- What plastic bags and tubs cannot be avoided are washed up and stored.
- I pile up plastic plant pots in an old plaster bucket under the house.
- Bottles of old engine oil get dutifully stored under the house.
- I bring home occasional piles of newspapers from work or bags of coffee grounds from my local cafe.
And yet, I’m not a hoarder. My home is small with little storage and I’m pretty strict about stuff. So why keep these things? Because they are still useful – to me or someone else – and needn’t be thrown away.
The rubber bands go to the market vendors who use the blighters to bundle their veg (with a few kept on hand because they’re always useful). The frilly tulle bags that still look brand new are taken back to the shop (eventually), saving the vendors money. The egg cartons get split between colleagues with chooks and the CWA shop (I tried using some as bio-degradable seedling pots this year, but it was a bit of a fail). The jars are re-used for storing dry goods and home-made preserves, with the excess passed on to a local charity for others to use. Rescued tissue paper and cellophane are kept to wrap another day, post-packs are recycled and ribbons re-used.
Those unavoidable plastics* are re-used to store fruit and veg in the fridge, and to freeze left-overs for future lunches (though I’m a little bit worried about the health implications of this). Pots are recycled (it’s best to sterilize them first, if you can) for the next lot of seedlings, now that I’m growing from seed, or passed on to gardening friends. The old engine oil goes to a guy who uses it for weather-proofing timber for his landscaping projects. Newspapers help light the fire, get shredded into the compost or added to mulch, while coffee grounds are deployed as slug and snail protection around pale green garden things.
This year’s seedlings shot up in recycled pots (but did less well in egg cartons), while an old olive tub gets used again for storing home-made hummus.
These things that would otherwise be thrown out as waste, added to the vast pile of landfill, are still useful. There is no need to throw them away. Each and every item that comes into my home came from somewhere, was made from something. Resources were consumed to make it and transport it to me, and living sustainably is all about conserving our resources as much as possible. Whether it’s the petroleum products in plastics or the plant nutrients in the coffee grounds, I feel I have a duty to make the most of the resources I consume and so I do my best to re-use and recycle.
What I really like, though, is the expression of pleasant surprise on the faces of shop-keepers and growers when I turn up with a bundle of tulle bags or rubber bands. I’m saving them money by my small acts, making a tiny contribution to reducing their operating costs and keeping my favourite businesses going. Now how’s that for sustainability?
Our little choices and small, simple acts can all add up and make a real difference.
* Any tips on how to go about buying locally-grown olives or other deli goodies without bringing home another plastic tub? How to store leafy veggies in the fridge without plastic bags? I’m keen to de-plastic my existence!