When you’re living in a desert city of 10 million people in the developing world resources are stretched tightly. There’s not much room for nature in Lima, beyond the inevitable urban pigeons and a few hardy native birds that take advantage of the artificial oases of urban parks and gardens. There’s no space for wild places within the vast city limits, with one remarkable exception: Los Pantanos de Villa.
Los Pantanos is the sole protected natural area within the Lima urban footprint. It’s what’s left of the band of coastal wetlands that first allowed people to flourish in the desert. It’s why the original inhabitants built their towns and temples here, long before the Spanish dreamt of Incan gold and conquest. Over time the urban creep of the city has consumed much of these important habitats, and now Los Pantanos is all that remains, a surprising wedge of green constrained by dusty urban development and the sea.
In a city like Lima, an urban swamp becomes a treasure. Las Pantanos is an oasis of biodiversity here in the city. It has been named a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention1, which recognises its value as habitat for waterbirds on an international scale. When I visited Los Pantanos de Villa in November, when the migratory birds were just beginning to arrive for the summer, it’s importance to waterbird conservation was immediately evident.
It’s not just the waterbirds that make this place special, however. The surprising variety of wetland types within the reserve mean it supports a diverse array of life for such a small space. There are blackwater, saline, acidic, basic, freshwater and brackish water ponds, each with their own specific biological communities, from the algae in the water that form the base of the food chain to the surrounding vegetation and the animals that call it home.
The water that feeds this complex ecosystem originates high in the Andes. Wet season rainfall slowly percolates through the subsoil and aquifers, seeping it’s way beneath the desert and reaching the wetlands some four months later. Here it interacts with the ocean currents and salinity to well up to the surface, forming this intriguing mosaic of marshes and ponds. This slow and complex fluvial geomorphology brings life to the desert.
The park buzzes with dragonflies, damselflies and other insects with aquatic larval phases, which in turn provide rich pickings to the spiders and terrestrial birds. The dense thickets of reeds and mounds of samphire provide excellent habitat for any number of small critters that would otherwise be homeless in the urban expanse of Lima. There’s even a remnant population of wild-type guinea pigs, locally extinct, surviving in the centre of the swamplands.
The birds are the big drawcard though, and in summer the migratory species descend in their thousands to feed and breed in the reserve and on the adjoining beach. On the day I visited a small ceremony was held to herald the first arrivals of the season and honour the special connection between land and sea these wetlands represent. It’s a great way to get the community involved with the reserve and build traditions that contribute to environmental education and protection, and it’s in the area of community engagement and education that Los Pantanos de Villa really shines.
I was lucky enough to meet the team of biologists and rangers who take care of this rather special place. They are passionate people who understand that real, long-term environmental protection needs the support of the community. This means helping people to understand and value the ecology of the wetlands and other protected areas, and the team are involved in a lot of outreach and communication work. They’re building a new visitors information and interpretation centre and nurturing relationships with local schools and institutions. They understand that, in the crowded suburbs of Lima, the reserve needs to be a good citizen and get along with its neighbours. The local community is learning to love what used to be thought of as wasted land, and through engagement and education activities environmental awareness is increasing.
The more people who understand the value of the wetland, the better protected it will be, long into the future. Like the ripples from the wake of an Andean Duck, these changes will fan out and build public understanding and value of the environment as a whole, from the urban fringes of Lima to the shrinking rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon. These changes are the real impact of urban national parks and wildlife reserves: they provide an opportunity to connect city-dwellers with nature and sow the seeds of change. The most important thing is to get the conversation started.
Los Pantanos de Villa
What: Wildlife Refuge and wetlands complex, listed as a Protected Natural Area by the Ministry of the Environment, co-managed with the City of Lima
Where: Chorillos, a coastal suburb in the south of Lima, Peru
How: Take the Metropolitano mainline bus to Chorillos. From the bus station catch the yellow metro feeder bus. The Pantanos de Villa bus stop is on the main trail into the reserve.
Thanks to park manager Daniel Valle Basto and his wonderful team for inviting me to visit Low Pantanos de Villa and attend the welcoming ceremony for the birds. I’ll be back as soon as I can!
1. The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) — called the “Ramsar Convention” — is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the “wise use”, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.
Today is International Volunteers Day, apparently. There’s a day or a week or a month for everything, it seems, but volunteering is a good thing to stop and think about now and again. Volunteering – donating our knowledge, labour or skills for free – is a powerful way of creating the kind of future we’d like to see.
I’m volunteering on a big scale, spending a year working to help to develop skills and capacity in the team that tried to balance the social and economic needs for development with the protection of Peru’s network of incredible national parks and reserves. It’s a privilege to be doing what I’m doing, to have the opportunity to experience another country and culture, using my skills to help accomplish things that I’m passionate about. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, to have found myself at a place in life where I could just pack up and go, to be able to afford to spend an entire year away without a real income. How fortunate I am to have the chance to try to change things (and how bizarre it feels to find myself the ‘expert’ in anything).
You don’t have to do something as big and crazy as I’m doing to change things though. In fact it’s often the local, community efforts that make the biggest impacts and really change the way we live. Volunteering at home, as much as abroad, gives us the ability to touch other people’s lives and contribute towards the world we want to live in. When if comes to building a sustainable, communal, joyful future, volunteering our time and effort is one of the the most powerful things we can do.
Through voluntary efforts we can fill gaps in public services, ameliorating the worst impacts of inevitable shortfalls in government funding and capacity. Through volunteering we can take actions to support our beliefs and keep things moving in the direction we value, even when the government may have different ideas. Volunteers bring our communities together and help us become more in collective than we are on our own.
On a personal level, volunteering can be very rewarding. It allows us a chance to put our values into action, to connect with others who share a vision, to feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to our community or to the planet. It lets us build new skills and try out our ideas outside of a traditional work environment. It provides opportunities to test new ways of working and thinking and to experiment a little. Altruistic collective action can be a powerful antidote to the individualistic consumption our culture promotes. Research suggests that getting our volunteerism on makes us happier, more socially-connected people who live longer lives.
It seems that in giving for nothing we actually receive. Certainly my year here in Lima will teach me much more than what I’ll leave behind. My life will be forever changed and new doors opened in exchange for some guidelines and improved protocols (it hardly seems fair, really…).
If you’re interested in the whole overseas volunteering thing there’s heap of different programs, from unskilled pay-to-go roles through to the kind of professional placement I’m in. You can give your time for a few days or weeks as part of broader travel, like I did with my orphanage garden work last trip, or you can make the project the whole point of the trip, as I’m doing now.
Closer to home there’s all sorts of ways you can get involved in building a better future. There’s fantastic community-based environmental programs like Landcare and Waterwatch (and their equivalents outside of Aus) that support volunteers to make real environmental changes. There are groups like Extra Hands that coordinate tree planting or clean-up days. If people are more your thing there are programs that help others get outdoors and learn about the environment, like WildCare’s migrant outreach program, or you can help out in a local school or museum or community garden.
If you’re better with animals than people and have the time to spare, it’s rather rewarding to be wildlife carer (though your sleep may suffer with wee ones I suspect the cuteness makes up for it). Less demanding but still rewarding is helping out at an animal shelter (as an ex RSPCA dog-walker I can confirm that payment in puppy cuddles is all kinds of awesome).
If you’ve got great business skills these too can be donated. Committees of community and volunteer organisations will always welcome a savvy treasurer or well-networked publicity officer. Musicians can donate performance time to raise funds for things they believe in, or raise the moral of others engaged in hard slog. Domestic gods and goddesses can bake and cook things to sell for profit or feed those in need (like many of us in Hobart did to feed the fire-fighters at the start of the year). Gardeners can donate surplus produce where it’s needed.
There’s plenty of unofficial volunteering too: simple things like helping out our friends and neighbours, sharing equipment, time or skills. Checking in on elderly friends, walking the neighbour’s dogs, mowing someone’s lawn (thank you Marcus for the many times you did this for me). For me there was the connections made the season I volunteered to help coach and manage a girl’s soccer team, and the friends made over a hot BBQ when I helped out friends run a stall at the Sustainable Living Festival as well as all the little things that tied my neighbourhood together. These simple acts help to connect us with each other and build a real sense of community. It’s a way to shape and change the place you live in and get to know others who value the same things.
You don’t have to be in a privileged position like me to get out there and make a difference. Use the opportunities you have to make a difference in your own backyard, in the community to make your home in, where you get to enjoy all the associated benefits, both of contributing to something you believe in and receiving the benefits of positive change in your neighbourhood.
And of course if you are thinking about the whole overseas volunteering thing, why not see what sorts of programs can use your skills? Within Aus there’s AYAD, AVI, AVID, ABV and the Red Cross, all involved in established aid and development programs, and internationally there’s groups like Doctors and Engineers Without Borders as well as a heap of great NGO programs in pretty much every place imaginable (like the CREES scientific volunteer program here in the Peruvian Amazon). Of course there are some dodgy “volunteer tourism” organisations too, so do your homework and take the time to see if there’s something that feels right for you.
It’s International Volunteer Day, which seems to me as good a day as any to think about how each of us can help create the kind of world we want to live in. And if that just happens to include a year in Peru, well really who could complain?
It is the season of slowness, both internally and externally. The urge is strong to spend my days inside, reading, writing and watching the grey winter days slide by. Outside my windows the garden waits, pleading for love and attention but it’s cold out there, and windy, and the pickings are slim.
I got my winter brassicas in too late, after a bout of wild weather destroyed my little plastic greenhouse and the green shoots nestled within. Unseasonal warmth at the start of winter confused things: one of the apple trees attempted to flower and the potatoes I missed in the harvest sent up floats of green leaves just in time for the frosts. My leeks, beets and carrots failed to germinate (I suspect the blackbirds). The kale, my winter staple, got powdery mildew while I was away and hasn’t really recovered. Dandelions will be a bigger part of my diet this winter than the last…
I have rocket though, and a small but steady supply of sprouting broccoli. The salad burnet just keeps on giving and makes a nice mix with nasturtium leaves and the tender shoots of the sweet peas that came up in the warmth. The tatsoi in pots is slow-growing but tasty: the plants in the garden perform better but I have competition for the harvest from the brown rats that have set up home in the neighbour’s wood-heap. Too smart for their own good, they ignore the baits the neighbours have laid and the tasty morsels I place in my big steel trap (I have ethical issues with using poisons: I don’t think anything deserves that kind of horrible death or the chance of such nasty things getting into the food chain). Strange rats, they prefer to graze on my vegetables and decimated my winter lettuce crop.
I had to get the oca in a little early after they discovered the tasty tubers and started nibbling. Some things I’m not prepared to share. Now I have 2.5 kg of this delicious Andean staple to keep me going through the cold months, and just as well, since the June warm weather sent my stored potatoes sprouting despite dark storage. Not a bad effort for a new-to-me crop, grown from a half-dozen donated tubers thrown into a hastily-dug garden bed and largely neglected for nine months. I like plants that grow themselves.
I did motivate myself a couple of weekends ago to re-edge the garden beds in an attempt to keep the grass out and the mulch in (as much as possible when there are blackbirds…) and was pleased to discover that, for the most, the soil was in good condition, rich in humic matter, retaining moisture and alive with worms and insects. Given the dry, compacted wormless dirt that was here on my arrival I’m pretty happy with the improvement. It’s amazing what lazy composting, liberal applications of manure and enthusiastic mulching can do!
Mostly though, I like to sit at my table, taking my time over a pot of tea, looking out over the winter landscape and watching the birds. There are crescent honey-eaters in the banksia hanging over the fence, and they sit on the house wire, chirruping their cheery call, “Eegypt! Eegypt!”. The little friarbirds are a rarer visitor during the cold months, but I sometimes see them perched high, surveying the scene. Flocks of cockatoos wheel way up overhead in the afternoons, on their way across the river to roost. Some winter days flocks of silver-eyes flit among the brassicas, feasting on the aphids in a rush of tiny feathers.
On cold, clear mornings, fog glides down the river as the sun rises. On clouded afternoons the sunset paints pale pastels across the sky, and on crisp winter nights the stars shine ever so bright as I peek out through the curtains, the cottage warmed by the wood heater. Best of all, though, are the days when the raindrops ping and trace patterns across the glass, when I can stay inside, reading or writing and drinking my tea without any guilt, knowing that nature is providing exactly what my garden, and I, need right now.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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
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!
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget
Can you believe it’s November already? November, when the weather finally warms up around here, the days grow long and the garden takes off. Time to plan for the summer and the busy period to come.
I’m wondering where 2012 went and realising that all too soon it will be Christmas, then New Year and 2013 will be here. Christmas… It still strikes me as unnatural to celebrate Christmas at the height of summer, when life here is at its busiest. It’s a Northern Hemisphere idea: a mid-winter festival that draws us together through the cold and dark. Fairy-lights, conifers and roast dinners make sense when the nights are long and cold, not when the temperatures are hitting 30oC! Still, Christmas is coming and it’s time to prepare, and that means getting gifts organised.
I loathe Christmas shopping. I’m not a fan of shopping at the best of times, but the combination of festive muzak, crowds and marketing overload between now and December 25th push me to the very edge. I do my damnedest to avoid it! Instead of heading out and buying stuff I stay in and make things with my own two hands.
It’s a choice that started as necessity when I was a broke uni student. With no cash to spare I got creative at Christmas, baking cookies, mixing up bath salts or massage oils, cooking up pesto and sauces, or making gift cards promising to deliver a massage or perform specific chores. Presents were wrapped in plain brown paper (hand-decorated in those days when I had more free time) and gift tags created from the bits and bobs in my craft draw.
My family got used to the idea of a hand-made Christmas and now it’s a tradition that continues. Born out of poverty it’s now a celebration of love: taking the time to make something for each other instead of buying yet more stuff. It’s cheaper, more meaningful and what’s more, it’s greener too! Consider the difference in impact between something cooked up in your own kitchen versus a made-in-China trinket. Home-made gifts mean no packaging, no transport emissions, no manufacturing impacts and far less resource use.
Of course, not everyone has the time, skills or resources available to make Chrimbo gifts, but there are still ways to green-up your gift-giving:
- Go second-hand – if you’re after a specific item for someone, does it have to be new? Check out websites like gumtree.com or the trading post and see if you can score one second-hand (thus leaving you with more money to get them something extra).
- Go local – buy things made by people in your community. Try art and craft galleries and fairs, or manufacturing jewellers for pretty things. Buy a book by a local author or a CD from your fave local band or city orchestra.
- Go charity – Not in need of more stuff? Make a donation to a worthwhile cause in your family’s name instead, or buy a charity gift through one of the many great programs available these days. A couple of years ago my Mum gave me a goat and it made me very happy!
- Go experiences – instead of objects, give the gift of doing. Think tickets to a concert, a fine-dining experience, a voucher for a massage, or something a little more adventurous like a joy flight or jet-boat ride.
- Go producer – visit the markets and providores to pick up locally made tasty treats, supporting local farmers and growers. Put together a hamper of local cheeses and chutneys, give a dessert-lover sweet sauces and syrups or box up a collection of quirky ingredients for a culinarily-adventurous friend.
- Go growing – give the gardener in your life (hi Dad!) some fancy heirloom veggie seeds, pick up some funky potted herbs for home gourmets or give a living bouquet with a pot of pretty flowers or an exotic orchid to your loved green-thumb.
This year I’ll be baking mini Christmas cakes (note to self: put the cake fruit into brandy this weekend) and making panforte again. I’ve also got a bag of lovely foraged lemons that I’ll turn into sunshiny curd to give away, along with the spiced cumquats I bottled recently. And because Christmas means sharing food and booze I’ll be buying some fine local wines and sourcing prime Tassie produce to lay on my table.
Do your worst, Christmas, I am prepared!
How do you navigate the Christmas consumer overload? Share your suggestions for making the festive season a little more sustainable!
Peanut butter cookies & Lemon curd never go astray!
Tassie folk: where are you doing your sustainable Christmas shopping? Here’s a summary of what’s on in the festive lead-up:
- Sustainable Living Festival – 10 & 11 November, Princes Wharf, Hobart
- Plant Hunter’s Fair - 10 & 11 November, Plant Hunters Nursery, 1115 Huon Road, Neika
- The Barn Market - 17 November, Rosny Barn, Rosny Park
- The Mother’s Market - 26 & 27 November, St. George’s Church Hall, Cromwell Street, Battery Point
- Maker’s Market – 8 & 9 December, Masonic Temple, Sandy Bay Rd, Battery Point
- Farm Gate Market - every Sunday, Melville St car park, corner Melville & Elizabeth Streets, Hobart
- Harvest Market - every Saturday, Cimitiere Street car park, Launceston
Can you add to the list?
It’s been just over 6 months now since I moved here to the Cottage, looking for a home that would better enable me to live the lifestyle I was after; something smaller, lower impact and more locally-focussed. It feels like a good time, now, with the weather warming and winter fading into memory, to reflect on the changes that have been made and the life I’ve been growing for myself.
So how have things turned out? Let’s take a look at my original list of desired aspects and see!
- North-facing, sunny position: a definite success! Once I hacked back the mirror bush that was shading out the morning sun, the Cottage has been filled with light. Sure, my armchair under the window is fading, but I don’t mind. Even on cold days, if the sun is shining the house warms up and stays warm until late evening. Even in the depths of winter, a sunny day means coming home to a warm house. Old but decent curtains help to keep the warmth in (though would be even more efficient if floor-length) and the tiled floor also adds to the thermal mass of the place. I’ve been seriously impressed: this old timber girl was far warmer through the winter than the previous modern brick place I was living in.
- Not open plan: There’s nothing open plan about this place and being able to shut rooms off made for much more efficient heating on those chilly winter nights. If I didn’t get the fire going I could use the electric heater to warm up only the room I was using, which was far more efficient and effective. On the other hand, once I had a good blaze going in the evenings I could open the door to the bedroom and know that by sleep-time it would be cozy warm in there. The place doesn’t feel pokey though, and with all the doors open the place is light and breezy.
- Insulated: Yeah, well, you can’t have everything, right, and the place is 100 years old… The roof here is not insulated and when I first moved in I discovered a few rather chilly draughts! The ceiling is timber panelling (huon pine, I believe), which is unusual, but turns out to have pretty good insulating properties. Well, at least once you’ve had your landlord get up there with gap filler and block up all the cracks and gaps where the timber’s warped with age. No longer are there 2 am “waterfalls” of cold air falling from the knots above my bed. I also sealed the sash windows and now, even in the spring gales with their 100 km/hr winds, no draught gets in. Between the timber ceiling and the proper curtains we stayed pretty warm through the winter, again much better than my old, semi-insulated 1990’s house.
- Workable kitchen with natural light: Ah, the kitchen. I compromised a little on the kitchen here and at first I hated it: dark, no storage, not enough bench space, a single sink and the cooker-of-fail. It took me a little while to figure out what to do about it! Fitting some construct-it-yourself shelving into the empty fridge nook (my fridge is too big to fit it) created an open pantry and solved my food storage problem, while a spare table and old fish tank stand were adapted to provide extra bench and storage space. The limited space is well managed now by having neat systems in place: everything has its place and the space works fine as long as you follow the system (woe betide if you don’t do the dishes for a day around here). The fail-cooker and I, well, we’ve come to an understanding. I’ve adapted what and how I cook and it mostly doesn’t burn my food. I’ve even managed to reduce the gloominess a little by sticking a cheap mirror up on the outside wall opposite the sole south-facing window. It’s subtle, but the reflected light does make a difference.
- Space for a garden: Oh boy, did I take on a bit much in the garden department! The backyard is decently sized and faces north, but had been woefully neglected. Still, with so much growing potential on display every time I look out these lovely big north-facing windows it was inevitable that I’d spend way too much time out there, wrangling it into shape. It’s still got a way to go (and if I owned, the whole yard would be terraced and turned into veggie beds) but it’s a lovely productive garden now, and I’ve had a surprising about of “volunteer” plants come up from things former tenants let go to seed. I’m not complaining about unexpected peas, leeks, shallots and celery! Given time and a liberal application of effort it would make the proper potager I’m dreaming of.
- Community: I got very lucky here. Not only is most everything in walkable distance, I scored great neighbours too! Admittedly I’m yet to meet anyone from the flats across the way, but I’m on good terms with my direct neighbours. The neighbours to the north are just plain brilliant. They’re happy to lend me tools, to mow my lawn when doing theirs and regularly stop for a chat. They keep an eye on my place when I go off travelling and I take care of their dogs while they’re away. I’m also getting to know the folks from local businesses I frequent and create a real sense of connection. It’s really lovely and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.
So the move to the Cottage has been a success, though not without its dramas. A few year of neglect has meant lots of catch-up maintenance and it’s taken some lifestyle re-adjustment. When I first moved in the place felt quite small and I struggled with finding places for my stuff. Now the Cottage feels luxuriously big for just one and I’d happily share the space (though only with someone as systematically organised as me!). I do miss company, living alone, but it’s nice to not have to compromise on my ethics and values or to clean up anyone else’s mess.
In the next 6 months I want to look at how to run the Cottage even more efficiently, reducing my water and energy use and continuing to reduce the amount of STUFF I keep and use. This space challenges me to think about the choices I’m making and work to my values and I love it for that. The Cottage has very quickly become my sustainable little home.
How does your home shape your lifestyle?
One of the wish list items I was looking for when I chose my most recent home was a walkable neighbourhood, and I’m pleased to say I got it. Since moving here I barely use my car. I walk to the corner grocer, I walk to visit friends or to my favourite coffee haunt, I walk to the produce market on Sundays and five days a week I walk to work.
The weekday walk to work quickly became something I love, even in the midst of winter on those chilly Hobart mornings. Walking into town watching the sun rise, drinking in the peace of the dawn is a truly beautiful thing. I don’t even mind so much when it’s raining (unless it’s a proper downpour, in which case I might wimp out and take the bus): with a rain cover on my back pack and a waterproof coat I quite happily trundle along. The only really unpleasant weather is when there’s a freezing wind blasting down from the Mountain and I haven’t got a decent coat.
It’s a 35 minute walk to the office, if I don’t get distracted or decide to explore a different way. Just enough time to give me all those health benefits the “find thirty” people are banging on about, twice a day each work day. I’m getting regular gentle exercise (particularly important at the moment, with a nasty knee injury keeping me from bush walking and other more intensive activities) as part of my daily routine, but the walk also gives me time to calm my always-busy mind and take a look at the world around me.
There’s always something to see, even walking the same route most days. In Autumn there was the long, golden light and the falling of the leaves, and the discovery of local fig and apple trees ripe for the foraging. In winter I enjoyed the sparkling frosts and mountain snow and watching the city wake and shake itself from slumber. Now it’s spring I’m seeing this little city bloom and the smiles return to people’s sun-warmed faces. There’s always another little detail to notice and I try to remember to take my little pocket camera with me to capture some of the beauty I see.
Not only do I have time this way to stop and smell the roses (and I do love burying my face right into the petals while I deeply inhale), I have time to put my thoughts in order, to properly wake up before work in the mornings and to relax each evening before I get home. It’s wonderfully good for my mental health, this walking business. I also get time to notice what’s going on in my little city: to see the new businesses opening and, all too often, the shops that have closed (last week the butcher specialising in local free-range meat who always waved as I passed, now another mainland chain butchery – please support your sustainable local businesses!).
I walk to work. I smile at the people I pass on the way and mostly they smile back. I keep pace with the changes around me and I notice the weather and the seasons more. I appreciate the days when the sun shines and the breeze is gentle, and I feel good about myself for still walking when the weather’s less kind. I care for my body, mind and spirit while saving money and stepping a little more lightly on the planet at the same time. That’s the very essence of sustainability!
How do you make your way to work each day? Can you find a lower-impact route that fits with your daily routine?
Before I moved here I took the bus to work and used the time to listen to podcasts, alighting a stop or two early to get a bit of a walk in. For previous jobs I’ve taken trains, caught ferries and cycled, and yes, even done the dreadful thing and driven where a viable alternative could not be found, though I car-pooled when I could: every bit helps!
If it’s too far to walk or public transport’s just not your thing, can you dust off your bike and cycle on in? It’s Ride2Work day tomorrow, the perfect time to give cycling a try!
Mostly though, I have to recommend it: walk where you can. You might just enjoy it.
I’d pretty much given up on my spring veg seeds sprouting. Well, except for the rocket and beans – they’re unkillable.
Instead of buying seedlings this year I’d decided to do my bit for crop diversity and source some rare and heirloom variety seeds: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and sunflowers, along with last season’s self-saved seed. I got all eco-experimental and planted most of my seeds in egg cartons, which it turns out don’t drain well and do dry out very easily. I was nervous about my prospects for success. Then the spring gales came and ripped my flimsy plastic greenhouse asunder and I came home last week to find all my seedling pots dust-dry and the few little shoots that had sprouted, withered and died.
Dispirited, I brought all the dirt-filled egg cartons and little pots inside, gave them a thorough soaking and ensconced them on the dining table under my lovely north-facing windows. Then I waited. I waited, I waited and I waited. Nothing.
So when I dropped by the hardware store to buy tape for greenhouse repairs (avoiding throwing the damn thing out like the disposable item it’s designed to be) I picked up a few tomato seedlings, determined to taste a home-grown summer again this year. And just this morning – as I checked again but found no signs of life – I thought I’d be throwing my egg carton experiments out as just so much expensive dust.
But this afternoon when I came home, there they were: pale green things.
Purple sprouting broccoli, Italian parsley, Caspar eggplant, chillies and all three types of tomato.
I’m going to take this one as a lesson to not give up on things so soon. To not be in such a rush to throw out and move on, but give fragile things a little bit more time to see if they can grow.
There will be sunflowers this year.