Monday, May 31, 2010

Being Young & Eco-conscious: Re-using and Recycling

I guess I'm quite unusual in being so interested in green issues at such a young age, and I've been pondering this lately. In many ways I'm a typical young adult in that I like partying, shopping and hanging around with my friends. But equally I somehow need to find the time to maintain my garden, look after my animals and bees and learn more about sustainability and permaculture. Unusually I know how to spin my own yarn and weave it, which local wild plants are good to eat and what to do with them, how to brew wine, beer, and cider (proper booze, not the chemical rubbish most people my age drink!) and how to make paper, my own cosmetics and to some extent, clothing. I see these skills as essential to my future survival - I am beginning to see that we cannot halt climate change, etc, and instead we need to focus on how to adapt to new living conditions. But at the same time I want to be able to go to electricity-rich gigs, enjoy foreign holidays and my regular Costa order, and buy fashionable shoes, at least while I still can. How to reconcile all these things?

In some ways the recession has helped me to do this, particularly in terms of re-using and recycling. Let's take fashion, for example (something that I'm very interested in, but can't afford and have doubts about in terms of green-ness). Now 90% of the clothes I buy come from the local charity shop. I'm lucky in that Mum volunteers there twice a week, and so I often get first dibs on any interesting bits and bobs that get donated. It's amazing what people will throw away - Aquascutum suits, beautiful Italian leather boots, Jaeger dresses, leather satchels...a large portion of my wardrobe now consists of perfectly wearable designer cast-offs from other people, some of them unworn with the labels still in! My favourite buy recently was a matching set of scarf, T-shirt and skirt in a wonderful Indian block-print fabric, good brand etc, no marks, tears, perfect condition.......and it all cost me £1. It seems that people will often throw something away the minute it gets a tiny stain or gets a bit too last week; the waste is unbelievable, but I certainly benefit from it. And anything too raggedy to sell still makes money for the charity shop, as they sell it all as rags. Recycling and re-using at its most basic perhaps, but I think it's fantastic!

^ Recent charity shop purchases; my wardrobe, full of second-hand goodies :)

Charity shop and clothing tips:
  • Go to more up-market areas - this is where you will find higher quality goodies
  • Support a particular charity or your local shop, or shop around to find a charity shop with the best selection
  • charity shops have got a little more trendy recently, and some have hiked up their prices. Good for the charity, so if you're feeling generous go for it, but personally, I wouldn't spend more than £10 on a posh dress, and for basic things such as jeans or a nice second hand top, I'd stick to the pound rail unless for something really special! If something has been sitting there for weeks, you may be able to get it at a discounted price, and if an item is out of season (e.g. you buy a jumper when it's summer) it's more likely to be cheaper, too. Don't be afraid to shop out of season!
  • it helps if you're a creative, quirky dresser who can see potential in seemingly redundant pieces. Think about combining and layering different things. If you're good at sewing etc, look for interesting fabrics - even if you don't like the item as it is, you might be able to transform it into something else.
  • don't discard an item if it has a stain or a rip - it could be easily fixed by you or a crafty friend. In my experience even things that say "dry clean only" can be washed successfully at a low temperature or by hand
  • don't donate disgusting items. Volunteers don't want to trawl through smelly, sweaty, cigarette-stinking, stained, grubby clothes, and nobody wants to buy these either. Wash everything first, and if something is a little too far gone, check that they have a rag bin, or go to your local dump and see if they have one there.
  • share clothes and other items between friends, neighbours and family. In this way we've been lucky enough to get a greenhouse, potential duck-pond, bins to keep animal feed in, furniture, clothing, books, etc.
  • keep a look out also for interesting jewellery and accessories, as well as furniture, knitting needles, books, DVD's etc...especially titles that are now out of print
  • try Freecycle, swapshops, car boot sales, and sharing/hiring shops etc. too! (particularly good for furniture, tools, plant seeds etc)
  • also - USE YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY for books, DVD's, even toys and games, and for finding leaflets about days out, local producers and events, and courses. My one even showcases the work of local artists and jewellery designers.

If you can't find what you want second hand, or want something special, then there are still loads of places you can go. Look at local producers' cooperatives, and sites such as eBay and Etsy. Supporting smaller and local producers is still a valid option, and many smaller companies still have better eco-credentials than high-street brands. I like Etsy for jewellery, and eBay is good for everything. Recently Dad bought an old stainless steel basin which we will turn into a solar wax extractor, and we even bought a whole greenhouse once. Look for unusual options too. We buy old blue mango chutney barrels for £10 each and convert these into vessels for growing veg and producing compost. And don't forget that you can learn to make and re-use different items for yourself - learn to knit, make your own furniture or propagate your own plants from a friend or one of the many professionals and teachers out there who are happy to share their knowledge.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bee Garden

After a kind request from Beth, I thought I'd give and overview of how we have (part intentionally, mostly unintentionally) created a bee and wildlife friendly garden, that also produces food and looks pretty.

We have 2 gardens, one large one at the back of the house (north facing, deep shadow cast by the house, south-facing fence, large nutrient-greedy ex-coppice ash trees that we're not allowed to cut down / coppice) and a long, narrow garden at the front (a real sun-trap, poor soil, shady corners, nice warm wall space). We live in a village that spreads over clay, chalk and sandy soils, and we seem to get the worst of all of these - mostly heavy clay, with loads of sandy ants' nests in the summer (it seems our whole estate was built on a giant ants' nest).

Over a number of years, the back garden has transformed. It used to be all lawn, with flower beds and 2 apple trees, and kids' toys. Now it has raised beds for our vegetables, compost heaps in a corner, room for the animals, a green house, and small trees and shrubs around the edges, including cider apples, hazel, crab apples, a hop vine, hawthorn, and ornamental shrubs such as lilac and viburnum. All of these plants produce flowers, and are usually teeming with bird and insect life throughout the summer, as well as providing food for us and our animals, and looking beautiful. But because we are lazy gardeners, there are also plenty of nettles and weeds, and intentional piles of sticks and logs - these too attract wildlife, as do the pond and compost heap. Some of the wildlife we've had over the years has included: hedgehogs, frogs, newts, butterflies, lizards, all kinds of birds, mice, rats (unfortunately!) and even a rare grass-snake.

^ 2007 - homemade polytunnel, raised beds growing squash, sweet corn, salads etc, ornamental and fruiting trees against the back wall

^ May 2010

The front garden however is my real baby. When I was younger, it used to be a strip of neglected lawn with a sparse hedge of rosemary bushes, with my mum's herbs and flowers growing between. There was a patch of wild (Alpine) strawberries, which were treasured treats for my sister and I on summer afternoons once we'd finished school, so sweet and soft, sun-warmed and full of spicy, tangy, sugary deliciousness. The ants tended to be in the front garden, often invading the house, and I remember my parents vainly trying to get rid of the nest right outside our front door by pooring boiling water down between the paving slabs, which formed the bumpy, uneven path I used to play hopscotch on.

However a few years ago, Mum was inspired by Beth Chatto's book 'The Dry Garden' and decided we should revamp the front garden. A couple of corners of it were already beautiful despite being very neglected, and chief among the plants were clematis, ceonothus, a Japanese quince and Phormium tenax. The rest of the garden was dug up and changed however. We had the path rebuilt, tried desperately to get rid of the perpetual weeds and improve the soil, and spent many hours building a wooden trough that ran around the edge of the garden. Although we deviated from the 'Dry Garden' inspired planting scheme eventually, we ended up with an ornamental garden that also gave us so much more - somewhere to sit and enjoy the evening sun, somewhere to grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and even green manure, and somewhere that would provide shelter and food for all sorts of wildlife.

^ June 2008

^ May 2010

2008 was the year that both gardens really came to life. I lived and breathed gardening for a while, learning about the uses of herbs from my mum, growing vegetables and gardening sustainably, eventually leading me to discover Permaculture. I created all sorts of plans for the gardens - useful plants to grow, pretty things picked up from my trips to garden centres, and planting schemes inspired by my new-found love of beekeeping, started by my Dad in 2007 (we got our first bees on May Day of that year). We got a greenhouse for free from some neighbours, allowing me to do some 'proper' gardening.
All our new ideas about gardening and wildlife, bees and animals, sustainability and Permaculture synthesised, and we have created a garden that is never quite the same from one year to the next, but remains a pleasant place to be and somewhere full of life. But onto how to create bee garden...


When choosing to make a garden that is bee-friendly, it's important to consider the needs of any wildlife:
WATER. Bees, like any other wildlife, need water, and a pond or shallow bird-bath is a great way of helping bees and other creatures. It can be as simple as a shallow dish filled with a thin layer of water, or a huge pond full of plants and pondlife, but a shallow, sheltered area with stones and twigs for the bees to perch on are essential. Remember that some of the pond (usually about a third of it, at least) should always be in the shade.

FOOD. Bees feed on pollen and nectar (which they turn into honey), which both come from flowers. Bees are 'awake' from early spring to late autumn, and will be out collecting food as long as it is not raining, too windy, or too cold. They need lots of food in the spring when they have been cooped up all winter, and lots in the summer too, so they can provide enough stores for the coming winter. In Britain we have something called the 'June gap' where there is about a month when most common feed plants aren't in flower and the bees can starve. In the bee-friendly garden therefore, it's important to have plants that flower all year round.

Early Spring:
tree pollen and nectar - hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, fruit trees
crocuses, other bulbs, dandelions,
viburnum (Himalayan species - flowers very early)
Mahonia, berberis (also edible!)

Late Spring:
Horse chestnut (v. good source),
Comfrey (excellent green manure too)
Field beans (braod beans)
Oil seed rape (brassica)
Ceonothus (bees love it!)
Holly flowers
many flowering evergreen shrubs
Lupins, peas, legumes (for bumblebees)

June Gap:
sainfoin (if you manage to make it germinate, please let me know how!)

Lavender, Golden Rod, Rosemary, Thyme
Beans (good for bumble bees), courgettes and squashes
Himalayan balsam (an invasive weed, so be careful)
Sage (if it's warm enough for it to flower, the bees will be all over it)
Clover (and other flowering weeds found in meadows, etc)

Autumn and Late Sources:
Ivy (very important source)

As a rule, bees and other beneficial insects like aromatic plants and herbs, while pests tend to stay away from these.

Double-headed flowers (e.g. French marigolds, most modern hollyhocks, double roses, etc.) tend to be no good to bees - single flowers are more easy for them to access.

SHELTER. Dead wood, log piles and hollow trees can all provide shelter for many different species of bees. Holes in the ground and in brick work can also be bee-friendly places, particularly for solitary bee species. If you have a sunny, sheltered spot, this is the perfect place to plant your bee-friendly plants, as these are the conditions that bees prefer to collect food in. Hedgerows are good, too. If you want to keep your own bees, you need to find a suitable apiary site, and that needs another blog post of its own! If you find you have a colony of bees that are in an inconvenient place, or find a swarm has landed in your garden, call your local beekeepers' association and see if it is possible to move them to a more secluded area. At the moment we have a small bumblebee nest in the eaves of our house. Luckily they don't cause us any problems, and we're happy to have them there!

Other ways you can help the bees include:

  • support or join your local or national Beekeeper's Association. All you need is an interest and passion, you don't have to actually keep bees to join! The British Beekeeper's Association now have a "sponsor a hive" scheme that allows you to get involved even if you don't want to keep bees yourself, and can make a great gift idea
  • support local beekeepers by buying local honey
  • don't leave empty honey jars outside with leftover honey in - always rinse away any scraps of honey. This helps to prevent the spread of disease
  • seed-bombing. Mix up some seeds of bee-friendly, non-invasive plants with soil and water, roll into balls, allow to dry and throw them onto any patches of waste ground etc. that you see.
  • don't use pesticides, etc. in your garden
  • get to know local beekeepers, etc. If you have enough land you could even let a local beekeeper keep a hive or two on your land
This is by no means exhaustive and there is plenty more to be discovered through your own garden experimentation! But by encouraging bees and generally increasing the biodiversity of your garden by growing a variety of plants and welcoming a variety of creatures, you can do your own small bit in preserving species that are not only good for the environment, but good for the human spirit (and stomach) too!

More Bees

Well, yesterday I visited the 1st swarm of the year (the one I didn't go and collect, currently the only one we have so far actually taken home to the apiary) and wow! HUGE swarm, as big as a good-sized whole colony, and boy are they busy! They have already built out about 4 frames of wax with no foundation to help them along. 3 whole frames are already full of nectar, with more throughout the rest of the hive. They're building up really quick and look like really hard working bees. The only thing is, despite the fact they've been there exactly a week now and are bringing in pollen, there is NO BROOD. So, either the queen hasn't got going yet, or she's not working, or she's dead/gone somewhere. But they look like they're doing good, so we're going to leave them to it for a while longer, and if there's still no sign, they will get a frame of eggs from another hive so they can make a new queen. We're having to breed all our own queens this year, as we don't trust the queens from last year's breeder, and Hawaiian queens have now been banned by Defra because SHB or something has been found in Hawaii...this isn't a problem though as we are really excited about breeding our own queens! Just hope it works!

And now onto a disgusting job that I had to do that I just had to write about! The other day Dad showed me that wax moths have got into some of our stored frames...this is not acceptable, as they can absolutely destroy frames and even whole hives! While Dad was working it was mine and Pabi Bach's job to squish as many adults and larvae as we could find...however Pabi Bach was too squeamish and so it came down to me (the vegetarian of the family...felt guilty and disgusted, but also got rather carried away). The larvae, when prodded in a particular part of their anatomy, explode like a zit (nice). If you don't get them there they carry on was a very gooey job, and not at all pleasant.

^ wax moth nest, chewed up wax and soft, spider's web-like stuff

^ adult wax moth - small grey moth with a kind of golden-brown spot on the thorax

^ a wax moth larvae in the nest

^ the picture isn't very clear, but the larvae create sort of tunnels through the wax, eventually destroying the whole lot if you don't gte rid of them.

^ More wax moth damage

Later that evening I also had to protect Pabi Bach from a cockchafer beetle that seemed intent on dive-bombing us...although harmless (except if you're a prized plant) these beetles are about 3cm long, brown, buzzy and seem to have no breaks, and so we found it pretty alarming when it flew through her window that evening and started uncontrollably whizzing around the room! (It soared menacingly over Pabi, she gave a piercing scream, I turned and started to bolt for the door when it hove into view in front of me. I stopped, it kept on coming, hit me on the mouth and went spiralling off into a corner. Meanwhile Pabi and I made a break for it). I think she owes me a few gruesome jobs now...

^ blurry pic of the mosntrous blood-thirsty cockchafer...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bees & Garden

We've had a while of miserable weather but the last few days have been very hot indeed, and this has definitely shown in terms of the number of calls we've had about swarms! We've had 3 in the past week (not all of them turned out to be honey bees however), and have carried out an artificial swarm on our existing hive, and so at present we have 3 colonies and possibly another 1 on the way...

^ Queen with long abdomen (sorry for blurry pic)

^ Artificial Swarm taking place

The first call we got was to a beautiful old house in the countryside which is being converted into flats. The foreman had spotted the bees clustered on a tree trunk in the sunshine. When we arrived the "swarm" had gone and what we were left with was a wild colony living in the dead tree trunk, with only an inch square hole for access. Unfortunately the tree is being cut down and so they will have to move, but fortunately the foreman seemed very reluctant to kill them. We pondered and pondered how we could possibly rescue the bees, as the queen will never leave her home and brood. In the end Dad constructed a cardboard box with a one-way bee escape in, so that any bees flying out would be redirected to a hive on a raised platform. That way we'll the get the flyers at least, and although they'll be queenless, they may be able to start afresh with a few nurse bees and a frame of eggs. The queen and her brood will have to be left there (and destroyed) but that's life, bees and humans don't always get along.

The second call I didn't go to, but I gather it was a straightforward swarm collection and the bees are now installed in the apiary! The third call turned out to be bumble bees, but if the weather continues to be as good as it is there should be plenty more opportunities for us to stock up on new colonies.

I'm a great believer in collecting swarms and the merits of wild colonies; not only do you get a new colony for free, but you can be assured that you're getting bees whose natural instincts are sound. Of course there is always the slight risk that they'll be hideously grumpy or carrying diseases, although swarming is often a good way to minimise disease, and swarming bees tend to be at their most docile. The only hive of ours who survived the winter and have made a good start this year are the wild colony we collected from the wall (see the video blog). And despite being moved fairly late in the year last year, they still made loads of lovely honey and laid down good stores for them and for us. This made me realise that bees that can survive without human meddling are the most likely to survive overall - if they can take care of themselves, they're less likely to produce dud queens, starve to death, be lazy or too grumpy, or freeze to death. They've done it all before in the wild, so of course they'll survive in a nice new hive where the wax is already started for them. Last year we bought a bunch of new mated queens from a local bee breeder. Every single colony failed, and in every case it was because the queen hadn't taken or had stopped laying, and I recently heard that another keeper in our association had the same problem with queens from the same breeder. And while this might just be that one individual breeder, it can't be denied that we humans breed bees that have the characteristics that are convenient for us (docility, good honey production, lack of swarming instinct). But the more I learn about bees, the more I begin to realise that these characteristics aren't good for them - is it any wonder that they're dying out if their natural instincts are being suppressed? With wild or swarming bees, you know that they're following their instincts and are doing what comes naturally to them, and this can only be a good thing. "Natural" bees should be resilient, self-regulating and completely uninterested by human activity. Perhaps by breeding bees to illiminate problems, we are creating more problems? Let me know what you think!

And onto the garden. The first beans have been planted out in a heavy mulch of homemade compost (mulching helps retain moisture, good plant food, no digging required, and also I was too lazy to prepare the ground earlier this year, woops!), but I've run out of canes so the others will have to wait; however, I am now watering them religiously and despite a tussle with the rabbits (evidence: white fur all over munched lower leaves and stems) they're making a good go of it. We've got a few lettuces and peas on the go too, as well as our tomatoes, chillis and peppers, but we need more! So now that I am on study leave, I'm hoping to be able to get out in the garden a bit more (when I'm not studying lol) and sort things out a bit.

As for compost, last year we tried an enclosed compost heap called the "Green Johanna" which allows you to compost cooked food and even meat, dairy and fish. As a result of this we had a rat infestation for a while, although this could also possibly have been because of the building works next door, as the rats disappeared after the building stopped...anyway, we stopped using the Green Jo' and have left it for almost a year...and now it is full of the most wonderful loamy, soft, fine, moist, rich, dark lovely compost! I can't wait to get using it. It doesn't smell at all and has the most wonderful texture, part of me wishes I could roll around in it!

Anyway, I shall leave you with a delicious recipe that Dad made up this evening - wonderful with a slice of toast or good nutty brown rice ^^

Dad's Leek & Bean Summer Stew


5 dry red chillis, crushed (or your preference, we like things hot ^^)
3 leeks, chopped
2 courgettes, sliced
1 onion, chopped
1 tin of black eye peas, drained
1 tin of chick peas, drained
salt and pepper

It's easy - stick all in a pot with a little stock or water, and cook with the lid on until the leeks and courgettes are soft and sweet. Delicious!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Update 03.05.2010

It's certainly proving to be a good year for fruit so far: the trees, both in the garden and in the wild, are absolutely laden with blossoms. I already have small blackcurrants forming; the beans are reaching for the skies and will very soon be planted out now that we have our canes up. The strawberries are in flower, the tadpoles are wiggling around the pond, and the garden is beginning to look beautiful and green again. Bring on summer!