Playtime

I hear it time and time again when the topic of children arises – how can they have so much stuff?

And at the risk of sounding brutal, the answer is: because we buy it for them.

But do we really need to?

It’s easy to feel judged as a parent – to feel as if by not doing what others around us are doing that we’re somehow failing. But that simply isn’t the case – all our children are different and they all have different interests and passions.

But we don’t need to buy whole new sets of playthings for each of these interests if we invest in good quality, versatile items to begin with. And these might not necessarily be toys. 

The loose parts play movement aims to foster a sense of creativity and inventiveness in children by providing them with tools from which to create the things they want to play with. There is a wealth of information online with ideas all over Pinterest , but there’s also a really comprehensive guide available here, on Play Scotland’s website.

Loose parts might include things like shells, buttons, sticks, empty picture frames, feathers, building blocks, small bean bags, dried peas, cups, and old baking equiptment.

In the picture above we’ve got some corks, stone eggs, chopsticks, wooden fruit, feathers and wooden cutlery.

We also have some beautiful old Danish and German coins we found, whilst clearing out my inlaws’ house.

The dried peas have long been a favourite to play with – they form the basis of many a pretend meal, as well as rubble for diggers and landslides for trains.

Blankets are another wonderful item to add to the mix too – old cot-blankets are ideal as they’re a managable size for small people. These serve as dressing up, dance floors, doll beds, landscapes, i-spy scapes (in the case of one particularly colourful patchwork example) and den-building fodder.

With the above selection of seeminly random objects, we’ve played supermarkets and cafes, built bridges and birdnests, and done no end of collages.

This is the bird my eldest made, following a trip to the local falconry centre.

Over the lockdown period, we used the loose parts to supplement learning – shown here when we modelled parts of the butterfly/caterpillar lifecycle.

The above wooden tray is actually a bread-board I found in a charity shop – the dip where the letters are is intended for butter, whilst the chamber holding the rice originally held a grid for slicing the bread over to stop the escape of bread crumbs.

I used the grid part for threading when the children were younger…
Nowadays, it tends to be used as a musical instrument ‘scraper’. Running a chopstick along the ridges makes an excellent sound.

In the past, it’s also been used for Hama beads – the beads themselves occupying the butter cavity, whilst the plate sit in the bit where the rice currently is. In fact, this single, unobtrusive item has possibly one of the most-used play things in our house. And I can use it for its intended purpose when the kids have finished with it!

There are lots of possible games and activities you can make from loose parts – we’ve enjoyed DIY draughts/checkers, a ring-toss game, mancala, and a whole variety of transient versions of snakes and ladders. You can make counting games, where children place the correct number of buttons or pine cones or blocks onto the relevant digit (i.e. 7 coins on the number 7), or bingo grids where they roll a dice and cover the number they roll using – for example – a shell.

We’ve made matching games, which are great for early literacy – matching shapes is an essential skill for early reading. All I did here was lay keys out on the scanner bed, then press scan.

One of our recent favourites has been float vs sink. You ask the child which items they think will float, and which they think will sink and then you experiment…

The only limits, really, are your imagination… and the size of item you include for younger children.

You can make use of loose parts anywhere – they’re great fun for playing with in the garden and on walks.

Most of the things we use either came from charity shops, the kitchen drawers, or the countryside around us. Conkers and acorns were gathered on woodland walks, wooden spoons and chopsticks were purloined from the kitchen, whilst corks, bobbins and buttons have been diligently saved over the years. Keys were purchased on eBay and things like the wooden fruit and stone eggs were picked up along the way in charity shops.

Obviously we do have purpose-made toys too, but I tend to focus on truly versatile things – Lego, wooden blocks, vehicles, animal figures, dolls, stuffed toys, musical instruments, and STEM sets like Georello gears and Magformer shapes. All of these are readily available second hand (though branded things like Lego can be slightly more costly, even when used).

Loose parts are cheap, easily-accessible and versatile. A few small drawers of them can replace cupboards-worth of conventional toys. The ones I’ve showcased here tend to be made from natural materials, but that’s only because I’ve been trying to reduce the plastics in my house for many years now. Plastic bottle tops, plastic bobbins, single-use neon shot glasses, plastic straws, plastic pipes… these are all useful, valuable resources too. The point is not to elimiate synthetic materials, but to have fewer, more versatile items. This, in turn, will reduce the need for new toys, the storage to keep them, and the production of them – most of the items listed have either been used before (i.e. corks and bobbins), or can be used after they’re grown out of (i.e. the bread board).

One of the single, easiest things we can do to reduce our environmental impact is to consume less. Loose parts are a great way to do this whilst fostering a love of imaginative and educational play.

I would love to hear any ideas for how to use loose parts – I’m always on the lookout for new ideas on how we can use them! You can contact me either here or on Twitter.

DIY Cosmetics

I’ve posted before about making soap but in truth, there are very few bathroom products that I don’t make myself. From the cotton cloths I use on my face, to a really simple bath soak (epsom salts + dried lavender = all there is to it), I like knowing what’s in the things I put on my skin.

This works for me for a number of reasons. Primarily, because I’m really not much of a wearer of make-up, which I think this next sentence will demonstrate…

The tiny little tub in the picture (filled there with my DIY attempt) was the Beauty Naturals powder I bought for my wedding in 2008. It ran out last week…

And I know – you’re not supposed to use make-up past a certain age, but honestly… it was only a little past its use-by date, then only a little past that, then it was so old I couldn’t see the date stamp, and then the tub was basically an antique…

I’ve seen loads of tutorials online about how to make your own face powder from kitchen staples. These are invariably mixed from cocoa powder and some sort of white starch – in my case, I used tapioca starch because my refillery had given me a free bag.  It was past its best-before date…

I’m sensing a pattern…

Most of the ‘recipes’ I looked at dealt with powder for pale skin, but I did manage to find this tutorial on YouTube, which gives a suggested ratio for darker complexions. In all honesty though, I think this is just a case of messing around with the ingredients until you find something you like.

In terms of cost, this is just about the cheapest thing you’re going to find anywhere. You may already have the items you need in your store cupboard and at around £8 for 4g of finishing powder, I would venture that you can buy the ingredients for less, and have enough of them to make powder aplenty for years to come.

Being totally honest, I wouldn’t say this powder is a perfect substitute. It lacks a degree of warmth and the colour I mixed has a slightly grey quality to it when sat in the pot. I think that next time I dry some beetroot peel for stock, I’ll add the tiniest pinch of the resulting powder to try and add more of a ‘blush’. That said, it’s perfectly servicable as it is, so I’ll probably forget for another … ahem … 12 years.

Eep.

Other bathroom cabinet staples which I’ve made include:

Moisturiser: This is really simple. Simply melt around 0.5cm of a block of beeswax (or around 2-3g) with a heaped tablespoon of coconut oil, a teaspoon of olive oil and a tsp of glycerine (available in the baking section at most supermarkets, or online).

Lipbalm: I make this in ‘bulk’, filling up old Vaseline tins, or old liquorice pastile tins. Really, though – any small, portable container will work.

This I make by melting half a bar of beeswax, and the same weight of coconut oil together. Sometimes, if I have any for making my knitting more water-resistant, I add a teaspoon of lanolin. You can buy this in metal tubs online – I bought mine from a seller called ‘Elijah Blue’ but i can’t find links to their shop anymore – or in the baby section at the supermarket labelled as Lansinoh Lanolin cream. It’s expensive, but a little goes a long way and it’s a great alternative to the likes of Savlon cream or Germoline.

If you’re trying to avoid animal products, simply substituting the beeswax for extra coconut oil is absolutely an option but do keep in mind that the melting point for your products might be a little lower. This being the case, you may want to consider using a screw-top jar – tiny hotel jam jars are ideal, as are old contact lens cases – as you’re less likely to suffer leaks this way, if your balm does melt into liquid.

Obviously, this means that the lip balm basically becomes pure coconut oil. There’s nothing wrong with that – and it’s definitely an affordable way to do it – but if you wanted to add some other, slightly solid oils there’s no reason you couldn’t do that. I’ve heard good things about cocoa butter.

Dry Shampoo: When I go camping, I tend to use a lot of dry shampoo. I had been using Batiste spray and then the bottled Lush equivalent, but when I read the ingredients on the Lush bottle, I thought I’d have a go myself. The main components are – again – some kind of starch. I add cocoa powder to mine as my hair is really dark, but as above, adjust the ratios according to your own requirements.

In terms of things that I use and I’ve tried making, that’s about it at the present time. If I’m still writing this in another 12 years, I’ll tell you how I got on with DIY eyeshadow (I’ve heard good things about turmeric and cocoa powder), but as I said to begin with, I’m not really much of a make-up wearer.

Have you tried any of the above? Do you have any suggestions as to what I should try next? I would love to hear your comments – either below, or on Twitter.

Need vs Want

At the start of lockdown, my eldest’s favourite club issued the following challenge.

We were given a list of ‘things’ and had to divide them into categories – things we want and things we need.

In a group setting, this was meant to encourage the children to think about and discuss the idea of actual need – so, things like food, water, clothing etc. over cinema trips, technology, and vehicles (for example). But naturally, we didn’t have a group, so we did the best that we could on our own.

It was interesting to see which items my child though were essential.

The picture above is terrible (because I still can’t find my camera charger and I don’t want to buy a new one), but the ‘needs’ included things I’d never thought about. Education, friends, sewage, clean water, clean food, shelter, medicine,trees and plants… at nine, my child understands so much more than many of the adults I know – myself included.

– What about the car? I agrued.
– What about the car?
– How would you get to school without it? 
I said.
– I wouldn’t. Or I would, but we’d have to get up really early and walk, or bike.
– And books? Education? You don’t 
technically need them.
– But without them, I can’t learn and get better. And if we’re not getting better, what’s the point?

What indeed?

I’m not posting this to brag – to say, ‘look at how wonderful my child is.’** I’m posting this because I’ve never actually sat down, with intention, to look at the things I need. For example, I’ve always thought that living where we do, we need a car. But my child is right – that simply isn’t the case. It would take over an hour to walk to the village, and then a further 20 minutes to get the train to town, and then a further 30 minutes to walk from the station to the supermarket*. But I could do it.

This is the case with so many things – do I need the lovely skein of yarn that will sit in a box until I can think what to do with it? No. Do I need another book to rest on a shelf indefinitely, as I continue to gather more that I’ll read at some point? No.

Do I need the pretty, ‘sustainable’ version of the item I already have? No.

I will definitely try and keep this question in mind far more as I move forward.

__
*Interestingly, it would only take ten minutes to walk from the station to the butcher and refillery which is where I do most of my shopping.
** Though I do have very wonderful children.

Beans, beans…

At the beginning of the pandemic, the panic-buying highlighted issues in our food supply chain. In response, there were so many posts online about self-sufficieny.

Whilst I’m sure most of these were well-intentioned, I think it’s unrealistic to expect that people who’ve never attempted gardening before could support themselves completely. That said, there are lots of awesome things you can do to supplement your food shopping with delicious home-grown vegetables, even if you just have a windowsill.

Before I start, I just want to say – I’m not a gardener. This is the first year we’ve tried harvesting more than some herbs, perennial fruit,  and what we can forage. We built the raised beds last November – prior to the pandemic – and have tried to fill them as best we can this season, using what we had on hand (as seeds and seedlings were hard to come by).

So, without further ado, here are the things we grew from the store cupboard.

Garlic

By putting a bulb of garlic in the fridge for a few weeks, and then planting the individual segments, we managed to start 2 rows of healthy garlic plants. When the plants start to wilt a little, I’ll cut the leaves, chop them and freeze them for a milder garlic taste that I can add to stir-fry etc. Then I’ll let the bulbs dry and store them somewhere dark, and cool, and dry.

Corriander

I have a large stash of herbs and spices, and basically anything called ‘seeds’ are exactly that (which took me far too long to realise!). I’ve been growing corriander seeds on the window ledge in the kitchen for months now and they’re doing really well.

Peas

The peas that I grow are from a packet of dried store-cupboard peas, gifted to us in the early 2010s by Husband’s Norwegian colleauge when she moved back to Norway. I couldn’t think of a way to use dried peas that anyone would actually eat, and my eldest was going through a phase of planting things so I let nature take its course with that one…. and got the most wonderful, prolific pea plants I’ve ever come across. I’ve been growing from them ever since, and even though they’re now (at least) ten years old, they still reliably germinate. In short, don’t overlook dried legumes – they’re a wonderful way to plant from your kitchen.

Beans

This one was actually a little mind-blowing (to me, because I’m a numbers nerd)…

A pack of beansprouts at Tesco (correct at the time of writing) costs 70p for 300g, or £2.34 per kilo.

You can buy a bag of dried beans for £2.25 a kilo (already slightly cheaper than the sprouted counterpart).

To sprout beans yourself, all you need is a jar, some cloth, an elastic band, and some water (and some beans, obviously). To be honest, the cloth and the band aren’t 100% necessary either.

Cover the bottom of your jar in beans. What you can see above is around 25-50g, or between 7-11p worth of beans.

Soak them in water for around an hour…

Fix the cloth onto the top of the jar with the elastic band, use it as a seive to remove the excess water and place on the window ledge.

After 24 hours, I could see the start of germination. I added a little more water…

After 48 hours, they looked like this.

After a week, they looked like the picture above! It’s amazing how they can go from just covering the bottom of the jar to filling it.

At this point, just as the first leaves are forming, I normally put the jar in the fridge. This slows growth and make them keep for longer.

The finished sprouts weigh around 200g, which means that per kilo – if my maths is correct – they cost around 35-55p. That’s a lower price per kilo than for 300g of pre-sprouted beans.

If you can buy the beans from a refillery – which I’m lucky to be able to – this results in zero waste sprouts. I use them as a base for winter salads, as texture in summer salads, in stir-frys, and on sandwiches. If you’re meal-planning anyway, it’s very little extra effort to put some ‘beans on to sprout’, and potentially save yourself a few pennies and a plastic carrier.

Even if you can’t buy the dried beans free from plastic, you’re still saving a lot of packaging from landfill. Let’s say – for the sake of easy numbers – that you sprout 50g of beans a time. This means that the 1kg back of beans will give you 20 sproutings. Each sprouting will give you around 250g (I’m saying 250g for easy maths, plus I’ve used the large example of 50g so the resulting sprouts will be slightly heavier). So that’s 20×250=5000g, or 5kg. The equivalent 300g packs of pre-sprouted beans would come in 16.6 plastic bags.

That’s effectively 15-16 plastic bags that you’ve saved from landfill, depending on whether you bought the dried beans loose or packaged.

Hhmmm… I got excited about beans there…

Moving on.

Brocolli & spring onions

Something to bear in mind while storing brocolli and spring onions:

Putting the stem of brocolli in water whilst in the fridge will keep it fresh for far longer. It is the flower of the plant, and needs treating as you would any cut flower.

Spring onions, meanwhile, usually have their roots which means they can effectively be used as ‘cut-and-come-again’ vegetables. All you need to do is pop them in a glass with water on your window ledge, then when you need some, cut down to the leaves, stopping as the colour begins to change to white.

I’ve heard you can do the same thing with leeks, but I’ve never tried it. They don’t last that long in my house. I’m a big lover of leeks…

Regrow?

Finally, I thought I would touch on those videos that seem to be everywhere just now, implying that you can regrow all sorts of things from food scraps. I’ve heard that lots of the ideas don’t work, so I thought I’d test them by putting a lettuce nub in the ground… I’ll let you know how that pans out…

Don’t be discouraged, though. In the past, I’ve had great success as a result of Plants from Pips – specifically with avocado stones.

And that’s all, really.

Have you tried growing anything from kitchen scraps and seeds? I’d love to hear about any successes, either here or on Twitter.

Earth Overshoot Day

Recently, I stumbled upon the website Earth Overshoot Day.

I’ve known about the concept of Earth Overshoot Day for a while now. It is defined as being;

…the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.

In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day was a heartbreakingly early July 29th. In real terms, this means that we need over one-and-a-half planets to sustain the rate of human consumption.

Due to the Covid 19 outbreak, Earth Overshoot day falls on 22nd August, 2020 – later than the previous year. On the surface, this feels like cause for celebration – good news amidst the dark – but to me, it simply highlights the fact that even when so many nations effectively shut down, we’re still not staying within the planet’s ability to replenish its resources.

But I digress… On the website, there’s a calculator which allows you to estimate when your own personal Earth Overshoot Day is. I’ve had a go at these sorts of things before, via websites like the WWF. The results were not pretty. Partially, this was down to the level of accuracy – one isn’t able to select local produce, as I recall, and as far as I remember there are no options regarding the consumption of non-food items. The terrible results were also partially due to our heavy dependency on oil – for the past year, I’ve been doing 50miles per day in school drop-offs/pick-ups, and our house still runs on oil-fired central heating whilst being made of icy-cold rock.

As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for punishment, so I thought I’d have a go at this calculator and beat myself up a bit more about the fact that I’m overconsuming…

Except, given the results of the previous calculator, this was actually better than I’d feared.

Don’t misunderstand me – two months of overshoot is still two months too many – but actually, I expected to be closer to the achingly soon July date of 2019, or the still-too-early August 2020.

And in fairness to my former self, I filled this calculator in using my predicted miles for the coming academic year – 40 fewer every day (providing we all go back to school!) – now that both children are studying in the same place. That’s a huge relief.

And all this is well and good – I know where I need to cut back (oil!) – but what I really wanted to mention was the discrepency I came across the following morning. Because I intended to write about the calculator, I went back to check I’d got my numbers right. When I reached the end of this second calculation, I got a vastly different date – July 11th.

Confused, I went through each of the questions carefully and stumbled upon the one I hadn’t remembered to input extra detail into. It was a query which dealt with the consumption of objects around the house.

So, here are the answers I added:

Here are the answers which were automatically presumed:

As you can see, the difference between the responses isn’t huge. It’s not like the average is a ‘massive’ amount by modern consumer standards. But the difference in outcome is huge – 24th October to 11th July sort of huge.

That’s a whole 3 months and 13 days more resources used.

When we use these calculators, it’s easy to feel as though we’re not doing enough – not making any kind of difference – but that isn’t the case. The work we’re doing does matter and we should absolutely keep on doing it.

If you are going to have a go at one of these quizes, I would encourage you to fill it in multiple times. On completing it presuming that lockdown conditions continue for the year, for example, my overshoot day was December 3rd – simply by changing one aspect of our lives (namely travel).

By looking at the potentially huge impact of a single environmental decision, we can decide where best to personally focus our own efforts and where we can realistically make changes.

Coming out of lockdown, I’m definitely going to try and drive less, and to continue with my efforts to buy nothing new. Do you have any resolutions as this period of quarantine begins to ease off? I’d love to hear them, here or on Twitter.

 

 

Happy Birthday…

It’s my birthday in the next few days.*

I feel funny about celebrating birthdays – on the one hand, I’ve been around the sun one more time** and that’s an absolutely mind-blowingly awesome reason to celebrate, if you think about it.

On the other hand, I didn’t actually do anything to get this far – my mum did all the hard work. Really, I should be celebrating her for having had the patience to raise me to adulthood.

An aside: interestingly, I’m all about celebrating my kids’ birthdays for them. I know – I am nothing if not inconsistent. 

In any case, usually, I’d mark the occasion with a big family meal, but obviously that isn’t possible right now, so I will do the next best thing and pledge to buy nothing new for myself for the next 12 months. Because obviously, those two things are basically the same… ?

The thing is, I keep getting asked what I want for my birthday, and honestly – without belittling how rubbish lockdown is in many ways – I want this to continue. I want the swallows to be the only things in my skies, and for all engine noise to stop when the farm parks the tractor at 8pm. I want to sit out in the garden and hear birdsong, and insect life, and smell herbs that I’ve had time to plant.

I’m always telling the kids that we can’t control other people, and that the only thing we have dominion over in this life is ourselves. So I’m going to do what I can do in the hopes that lots of other people have similar thoughts in coming out of lockdown. I’m not going to buy anything new for a year.

I’ve spoken before about having found Jen Gale’s attempt at this utterly fascinating, and having recently seen first hand what a stonking amount of difference consumption can make to our environmental footprint, I figured that I’d have a go myself.  I seldom buy new things anyway, so I’m not sure how much of a challenge this will be, but I guess that’s the point – to open our eyes to our own levels of consumption.

I’m going to try and extend this to my children too, but obviously they do things like grow lots, and have pocket money that I can’t spend on their behalf, but we’ll see how we get on.

I think I need to define some rules about what constitutes buying things for me. For example, am I ‘allowed’ to respond with items that I’d like if I’m asked what I want for Christmas? Or does a gift that I’m buying for my friend count as something for myself?

I mean, the easiest thing to do would be to follow Jen’s rules, which are here. The one about new running shoes definitely doesn’t apply to me, and though I think I’ll probably regret saying it, I think I’m able to make soap for hands and shampoo and cleaning so other than washing-up liquid, I’m not certain I’d need to buy any toiletries or cleaning products. I’m definitely on board with brand new underwear only, but as I’ve got patterns for this and a lot of fabric, there’s no reason I can’t make it… I can’t see me running out of crafting stuff either, but there’s a first time for everything, I suppose.

So… yeah, I guess for the next 12 months, I’m going to try and not buy anything new. And I’m going to write about it…

Things I expect I’ll miss: 
Books: If Covid means the libraries stay closed, I will eventually run out of reading material. Though I suppose I can get the classics via Kindle?
Craft supplies: I might end up breaking my own rules on this one in the run up to Christmas, but mostly I think I’ve got enough stuff to see me through 12 months and then some.
Jeans: I wear through jeans like you wouldn’t believe. And I’ve tried visible mending and machine darning and I still keep wrecking them. It’s not like I don’t have other clothes, mind you – I just never wear them. So maybe this will force me to be a lot more adventurous.

What will probably happen:
I’ll either ace this, and it won’t be an issue, or – I’m not going to lie – I’ll quit because it’s too much work. I hope the later won’t be the case, but I’m a realist and there are various forces at play within my life that I can’t control – there’s an unsteady income, various additional needs to contend with, and a dog which eats everything including his own tail. I’ll do all I can, but I’m only human.

So… that’s that, I guess.

Wish me luck!
___

*Also, the two year anniversary of my quitting Facebook. Time flies when life is full!
** For a total of 20440 million miles, if my calculations are correct.

Update on the carrots…

You might remember me planting carrots a few weeks ago? I used some snotty looking gel to try and speed up the process somewhat, so I thought I would report back on how that had worked out…

Well, both the kitchen-roll method and the gel method worked wonderfully and both patches of carrots sprouted at the same time! The big difference is that it took three weeks of patience for the kitchen-roll carrots, whilst the gel seeds took fewer than 7 days to germinate. The gel and soaking really does speed things up…

That said, I think that I possibly suspended too high a concentration of carrot seeds in the gel. The little seedlings poking up are still very tightly packed.

You can just about see the little green shoots amongst the onions in the picture above.

The point of the gel method was to speed up the rate of germination, and to avoid wasting the tiny, precious seeds by planting them all and then needing to thin them out. I think if I had used more gel/fewer seeds and planted over a larger area then I would have had a lot more success with the planting.

In contrast, the picture above is the little seedlings, happily spaced from having been carefully laid out on kitchen roll. A slower start, sure, but one which results in a lot less wastage.

The gel method did nothing for the root parsley, incidentally. It’s either not going to make an appearance, or it is taking far longer than anticipated.

Behind the kitchen-roll carrots, you can see some giant daikon radishes – something that a lot of our cookery books call for but which you can’t readily buy in rural Aberdeenshire (a region once described to me as, ‘the place good food goes to die slowly’.) Behind that, you can just about make out some wisps of fennel, whilst garlic and chives are hiding towards the back. To the right, you can see the ghost of a courgette plant, stunted by some mid-May snow!  We’d been gifted the seeds at Christmas as we had expected to have a greenhouse by now, but as we haven’t had any luck in sourcing one, the courgettes were a gamble for the cold, northern soil that doesn’t seem to have paid off.

The back garden is looking increasingly green, at long last. And true to form, the plants seem to have finally realised that we’ve entered spring and are merrily growing now. Lettuces and radishes make up the first half of the closest raised bed…

Onions and carrots are next in line, then potatoes and tentative celery…

And finally there are the peas and basiccas, asparagus and beetroot.

I don’t know how all of this will work out – whether we’ll get anything worth eating, but it has been an absolute joy to watch all of these things grow and flourish, despite the strange weather.

The mystery trees from Freecycle have all grown their seasonal foliage now – all are rowan, except for the beech and holly. The holly doesn’t seem to be doing particularly well, though, and will perhaps end up being replaced by a second rosemary bush, the first having been planted a little further back in the same row.

At the front of the property, we’ve let the grass grow long – better for pollinators and small children.

The enormous branch was gifted by the farm as firewood, but the children love playing on it so much that we haven’t cut it up yet. You can also see the den they made, and the log planter in the foreground.

The herbs and flowers in the planters are growing well. I know that I’ll have to move a lot of the plants as they grow and take up increasing aounts of space, but for now, they all fit in nicely.

This is the second planter – it contains parsley and chervil, and some edible flowers from a selection of seeds we got for Christmas.

I’m also trying to reduce the number of weeds that I can’t use, by introducing weeds that I can. In the pot with the rose above, I’ve scattered camomile seeds…

And though my tea plant didn’t make it through the winter, the rocket I scattered at the base seems to be doing well.

in the back garden, up by the apple tree, there is a stump from a sycamore which had succumb to the giant polypore fungus. Too large to move, we decided to make a feature of it. If all goes to plan, these little bean plants will climb up the sides to the netting and create a lovely little leafy den on top of the stump – a perfect spot for summer reading!

We tend to be a little late to the party in Scotland, but here are some of the beautiful flowers, finally making an appearance as we march towards June…

Did you plant anything this year? How are you getting on with it? I bet your veg is further along than mine!

 

 

Nettle Soup

Nettle soup is one of those ‘literary’ dishes. It sounds like something lifted straight from Beatrix Potter, or something that Merry Men would ‘sustain’ themselves on whilst hiding out in the forest. I think that’s why I loved it, to begin with – because I could pretend to be romantic and windswept and Tess-of-the-D’Urbervilles-y frugal.

Except that now, it’s just a thing that I eat, because we have nettles and I’m too lazy to go shopping.

To make a hearty bowl of nettle soup you need: 
– some nettles (obviously). I find around two big, fat handfuls works. Try to take the leafs from the top of the plant. You want the small tender ones.
– some kind of oniony taste (slightly-sprouting back-of-the-cupboard onions are fine, as are spring onions, leeks, garlic, and chives)
– some stock (I use a chicken OXO cube or some veg stock I made)
– possibly some diary – I like stinky cheese rinds, but these aren’t essential

I fry off the oniony-component in a little oil. As I’m doing that, I put a seive over a bowl, pop the nettles in the seive, and then pour boiling water over them to rid them of all stingy parts and any muck from outside. Once that’s done, I add the nettles to the onions. (I let the water in the bowl cool – it’s going on my house plants.) To the soup-pan, I add my stock and enough water to cover the nettles. When these have cooked through and gone tender, I blend them and add any dairy leftovers – a teaspoon of soured cream, some creme fraiche about to turn, some grated stilton rinds…

If I want something thicker, I like to add potato to the mix. Leftover mash is ideal, but tiny cubes cook quickly and really help to thicken things.

The taste is earthy – a bit like spinach – and wholesome. And if you grow your own chives and otherwise use up your leftovers as you make it, nettle soup can be one of those oh-so-rare free meals.

If you try it, I’d love to hear what you think. As ever, you can get in touch here or on Twitter.

Foraged food – the Giant Puffball

My absolute favourite way of getting zero-waste food is foraging. I mean, for a start it’s free, but more than that, there’s a thrill to it – seeing the golden, shining cap of a chanterelle mushroom is so like finding treasure.

Aside from the usual berries and leafy weeds, Husband is a great mushroom hunter. It’s important to add here that this is absolutely not a tutorial for how to find or identify fungi. If this is something that you want to get into, you need to seek out expert guidance. In our case, though, Husband grew up with a father whose granddad was an actual Snow-White style German woodsman. I’m not even kidding. So when my father-in-law was little, he used to walk in the woods with his granddad and search for mushrooms.

Despite his life-long skill, my father-in-law still carried an identification book at all times and never ate anything he was in the slightest doubt over. Contrary to popular belief, there are few ways to go wrong with wild mushrooms, but when one does make a mistake, it’s deadly.

It just isn’t worth the risk.

Just to stress again – this isn’t a tutorial. It’s just what we do. 

All that aside, as the season for mushrooming gets ever closer, I find myself getting increasingly excited and I thought I’d share one of my favourite recipes from last year, in case you’re lucky enough to find someone who knows what they’re doing.

We made what are essentially vegetarian schnitzel from the flesh of a giant puffball mushroom. I started by removing the outer layer, leaving the nice, clean centre.

Then, I sliced it into 4 rounds.

I smashed some stale bread into crumbs…

… mixed said crumbs with salt and paprika…

… then turned the ‘steaks’ in a whisked egg and the crumbs. I then fried this off as I would a chicken burger – until the outside was golden-brown and crunchy.

We ate these as burger substitutes and the mushroom flesh was delicious – aromatic and light, silky but firm. It was almost like tofu, but less chewy and more flavoursome.

As the breadcrumbs are leftovers from loaves gone by, the only real cost in all of this is the egg and the spices – a definite improvement on a pack of four vegeburgers/meaty burgers.

I’ve been told that it’s getting increasingly easy to source oyster mushrooms in the supermarket, and that being the case, I can imagine that this is a great way to serve larger examples. If you can, I would defintely urge you to try it with a fungi you know is safe (though not with a Portobello mushroom – I find tey go slimey).

Do you forage? What are your favourite things to find? I’d love to try out some of your recipes. As ever, contact me here or on Twitter.

Dandelion Cake

We have an abundance of dandelions in our garden. I love that they bring some much-needed colour after winter bleaches the Scottish landscape, and that they feed the bees which seem to happily inhabit our garden… but they really do take over huge swathes of ground.

I play a game of chicken with them every year – how long dare I let them flower? Too long and they release clouds of seed across the ground, but no long enough and my polinators go hungry.

And I really don’t like just (compost) binning them. The dandelion is a versatile food source – roots and leafs and flower are all edible. What a waste of food to simply pull it up and throw it away.

Lots of people make salads, dandelion wine, vegan ‘honey’*,  root ‘coffee’, or Greek radikia, from various parts of the plant, but I wanted something quick and child-friendly so I settled on a 2-egg Victoria sponge with petals in it, baked in a loaf tin.

Some notes: I don’t actually use a recipe when I’m making Victoria sponge. I weigh my eggs, add the same weight of self-raising flour, the same again of sugar, then half that weight of vegetable oil and half of milk. I use the veg oil/milk combination  because it’s cheaper than the equivalent quantity of butter, and because I don’t need to buy an extra ingredient i.e. margarine. If you go down this route, vegetable oil and sunflower oil work beautifully. Extra virgin rapeseed oil is awesome for nutty cakes like carrot, or coffee and walnut, but not so much for fluffy sweet things. Whatever you do, don’t use olive oil or sesame oil – trust me. Just don’t.

In case you’re not an egg-weighing person, I roughly used 120g sf flour, 120g sugar, 60mls milk, 60mls oil and 2 eggs for this cake – plus the 2 eggs and the dandelion petals.

To get your petals, all you need to do is pick some flowers – or have small, helping hands do that for you – and chop the green bits off.

It doesn’t matter if you leave a few stray greens in – it’s all edible – but too many will leave a bitter taste.

In total, you need around a cup of dandelion petals, but you can add more or less depending on your personal preference. I’m not a precise cook so I would absolutely encourage experimentation.

Bake the cake for around 40 minutes at 160C, or until a skewer comes out clean. Once you’ve done that, leave it to cool and slice when ready. If you can bring yourself to, though, I would recommend leaving it for 24 hours for the flavours to mature a little. You’ll get more of the sweet, honey undertones that way. The texture is also much more stable, and therefore willing to carry more butter. Just saying.

And there you have it. A tasty way to reduce the spread of weeds in your garden.

Have you tried eating dandelions? What are you favourite recipes? I would love to try them out! Contact me here, or on Twitter.

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*Which I’m sure my 90+ yr old friend said was what most people would have used during WW2 if honey wasn’t available, though I could be wrong.