Reasons to go hard for the environment #1 South Island Robin

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This is the little South Island robin that blessed us with a 15 minute up close visit on our walk up the Fox River.

In January during the summer holidays, our family spent two weeks in the South Island. We had a very typical New Zealand Summer experience weather wise. We packed up to leave in 34 degrees of hot dry nor’west wind and travelled south into an almost stable 13 degrees, lots of rain, and even a snowfall on the Southern Alps as a southerly blew through. Despite this we had a magic time. A leaking tent at Fox Glacier was no barrier to us enjoying the majestic scenery and showing the kids the glaciers. We were determined to let them see the glaciers before they retreat too far up their valleys to see at all. We wanted them to see what humanity is loosing. Climate change is real and it was graphically clear at Franz Josef Glacier just how far it has retreated in the lifetime of our ten year old daughter. If ever we as a family needed a reminder why we need to go hard for the environment the glaciers were an incredible and terribly sad proof that we (collectively) have to make more effort.

A few days later we drove up to Punakaiki and we got lucky and struck the sunniest and warmest day of our holiday. We headed up the Fox River to walk up the track for a bit and find a swimming hole. On route to find the perfect swimming spot we were blessed by the presence of a South Island robin. I have never seen a South Island robin before (although I have met the closely related North Island robin Mana Island). Our whole family of five sat down and waited to see what this precious little bird would do. I roughed up the leaf litter with my foot wondering if it would see some interesting little bugs. It hopped right up to us and spent 15 mins pecking around, watching us cautiously, and practically sitting on our feet. It was so trusting of us. And it is so unusual that a lot of New Zealanders have never had such an experience. It was so close we could see it’s tiny eyelashes, and watch as it raised it feathers each time we moved. Imagine if we could see these little birds in our back yards. Our native species are often overlooked and forgotten because they are so rare that they are effectively invisible to us as we go about our daily lives.

I find that as I am swamped with the day to day grind of work, housework, the kids sports practices and games, doctor appointments, shopping for the weekly food, remembering to return library books and all the multitudinous things that life throws at me, the environment can get swamped. Sometimes I need a wake up call to remind me what we are trying to do as a family and why it matters. I know I am not the only one to start off with good intentions only to forget in the rush and regret it later. So I have decided to post short blogs on key NZ species (animal, bird, plant and insect) to help act as a reminder why conservation and the environment matter so much. Many animals and insects and plants are suffering because they are not ‘glamourous’ or famous and as a result they are overlooked altogether. Who has time to think about skinks as they rush to get the supermarket before it closes? Many are never seen by most New Zealander’s and perhaps many people, like me just need a reminder why it all matters. Climate change is hurting these creatures as well as us. They have no voice to argue for themselves. Instead they rely on us to value them and speak for them.

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Our South Island robin friend watching us carefully to see if we would scuff up any more insects. I love how slender and tall its little legs are.

South Island robin/Toutouwai:

Robins/Toutouwai are very curious birds with intelligent bright eyes and will come really close to you.  As you walk through the forest your feet disturb small insects in the leaf litter and they are attracted to this. They are about the size of a sparrow and stand tall on long legs. There is a North Island robin (Petroica longipes), a South Island robin (Petroica australis australis), and a Stewart Island robin (Petroica australis rakiura). They are all New Zealand robins although, the North Island robin is a completely different species from the other two subspecies.  We met North Island Robins on Mana Island when we visited with our kids and spent time picking up plastic on the beach. An interesting fact about robins is that they are believed to be able to count.

Distribution: The South Island robin is found through both the South and Stewart Islands, although it’s populations are disjointed. The North Island robin is found only in the North Island.

New Zealand status: Endemic

Conservation status: Declining

Threats: Habitat loss, predation.

Predators: Introduced mammalian predators, such as feral cats, stoats, possums and ship rats.

Habitat: Forests with dense even canopies, an open understory, and fertile soils covered with leaf litter. Robins can be found in exotic forest stands. Robins are not found in areas with widely scattered trees and where the ground is covered by grasses or sparse vegetation on stony, droughty soils.  

Diet: Invertebrates including cicadas, stick insects, tree weta and slugs, as well as smaller insects. During dry periods and during summer and autumn they will take small fruits and berries.

How we can help robins in NZ: They are at risk and declining throughout the South Island, which means they could easily become threatened if we don’t help them out. They need us to support predator eradication efforts and to lobby for their habitat to be protected.

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A view of the stunning Fox River on the West Coast. This is robin habitat and we need to protect and safeguard remaining habitat and support predator eradication efforts.

Making sure your deodorant isn’t stink for the environment!

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From left:  My Ethique Rustic deodorant bar (the remaining stub is sitting on the bottom right corner of the box), my current Aotea Road rose and vanilla deodorant and my husbands zesty bergamot and lime scented one. The much loved jar on the right is my empty Dirty Hippy brand deodorant. All of these are great choices and all of them make you “stink pretty” as my Dad would say.

Deodorant! It is an essential item in every bathroom, particularly with outdoorsy men and (so I hear) teenaged boys. Nobody is that keen to trial a new eco-deodorant product and find out the hard way that it doesn’t work. It’s pretty awful when you suddenly realise you can smell your own armpits on the bus! Lucky for you, I have been quietly trialing several different products for the last 3 years. When I began this ethical living journey four years ago, I hadn’t come across any plastic free choices for deodorant at all. The only alternatives I had heard of involved making your own with baking soda. Initially, I was concerned with reducing plastic packaging and during the hunt for plastic free shampoo I found Ethique and their solid deodorant bars. I trialed one and loved it. I was a total convert to solid deodorant and haven’t looked back. Since then I have trialed a number of different types. This blog is a brief review of the brands I have used. All of them work and all of them are plastic packaging and climate-wrecking propellent free. Just in case you didn’t know most spray deodorants use propane, an oil industry by-product to spray out their choking fog!

Ethique: This was my first trial of a solid deodorant of any type. Way back in 2017 I got hold of an Ethique sampler pack that contained a lavender and vanilla deodorant bar. I loved it, and it worked. The tiny heart shaped sampler lasted for ages and kept me smelling fresh all day. I was so surprised at how well it worked that I had to keep checking how fresh my armpits were! Initially the first bar seemed to sweat oil beads in humid weather, but subsequent deodorant bars haven’t had the same problem at all. I trialed the Rustic deodorant bar and loved it too. Another positive is that they last for ages! I still have I tiny stub of each of those bars left that I can stash in my handbag or take travelling when space in a premium. These bars don’t stop you sweating, instead they keep you smelling fresh.

Aotea Road: This is my current deodorant. It is amazing and smells incredible. It comes in a push up cardboard tube which makes it a bit easier to handle and to travel with. I am using the Rose and Vanilla scented one and my husband is using the Zesty Bergamot and Lime one. Both are equally good and no-one has any complaints. Even after the hottest days and lots of physical activity, this deodorant works as well or better than the roll on varieties we used to use. I am a convert and I love that I can just get them at the supermarket.

Dirty Hippy: I love the name and I love the product. This deodorant is different from the stuff we are all familiar with in that you apply it with your fingers from a little glass jar. Don’t let that put you off though, because it is utterly fantastic and it really works. I used this for a long time before starting to trial other brands. I would definitely go back to using it again. You can post the jars back to be refilled if you choose. You can get trial sized testers if you want to try it out before you make your final purchase. I know a number of people who use this and all of them love it.

Bee Fresh: We also trialed this brand a year or two back and had no complaints. The smell was citrus fresh and the result seemed to last well, even on hot days. Definitely worth a try.

Make your own: If you are really keen on the idea you could make your own deodorant. There are many different recipes online to try. One of my friends swears that her homemade deodorant is as good or better than the bought ones. Here is a link to a homemade deodorant recipe I found on line that looks promising. Alternatively you could have a look at this website and try the recipe in the online booklet. I have a very dear friend who recommends this and has been making and using it herself. I haven’t had time to try making my own yet but it is definitely on my to do list for when I get a bit of free time to myself. If you have any great recipes then feel free to share them in the comments.

So there you have it, five different sustainable options for your armpits. No plastic packaging in sight and no needless rubbish to send to landfill. Better for you and definitely not stink for the environment!

20 simple actions to reduce your footprint.

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“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”.  Mother Theresa

As we begin 2021 – a new year (one that we hope will be far less eventful that the previous one) it’s the perfect time to consider how we can use this year to change the world. Don’t underestimate your individual power to effect positive change in our world. Our buying decisions, and both our individual and collective voices are some of the most important tools we have to make a meaningful difference to the environment.  Politics can often be difficult to influence as an individual, and political change is slow. Private companies are often far more responsive to changes in public opinion. Many of the options pushed at us these days as being fashionable, “on trend” or desirable are incredibly destructive for our environment and the opposite of sustainable. Day after day big companies market things to you hoping you won’t look deeper than the shiny advertising before you decide what to purchase. This blog contains a list of things you can do now to have an immediate positive impact on the environment and your carbon footprint. Making powerful choices doesn’t have to wait, you can begin today!

  1. Think about the running cost and environmental foot print of kitchen appliances before you buy them.  Gas hobs are terrible for the environment particularly if your electrical supply is renewable.  Remember, gas is a fossil fuel. It is a finite resource, and it contributes to your families greenhouse gas emissions! Consider opting for an induction hob if you want something akin to a gas experience or stick with an electric oven/cook top. Our electricity here in NZ is 80% renewable so you are better off sticking with electricity than gas,
  2. Don’t install instant gas hot water.  Using gas to rapidly heat hot water is extremely inefficient and results in large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions.  It is easy to waste hot water if you have gas hot water because it never ever runs out. We were stunned at how easy it was to use huge amounts of hot water when we lived in a rental with gas hot water. It was expensive. As I mentioned above, gas is a fossil fuel, and it is a finite resource contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Just stick with your electric hot water cylinder and consider adding a wetback and/or solar hot water. A future consideration that is important to bear in mind is that when the cost of carbon emissions are inevitably added to your gas bill in the future, the cost of heating your water will likely become prohibitively expensive.
  3. If you are building or renovating a house, choose locally sourced and produced materials. Try and avoid exotic materials that have to be shipped half way across the world. Be prepared to use demolition materials and recycled features eg, doors and windows. Reusing materials from within NZ saves on shipping and prevents things like timber, framing, plumbing fixtures and the like from ending up in the landfill.
  4. If you are building a house or significantly altering the rooflines as part of a renovation, make sure you consider the orientation and pitch of your roof so that you can put solar panels on. If you have a mono-pitch roof facing the wrong direction it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to put solar panels on your roof. Solar panels just make so much sense. I believe they are going to be a huge part of making NZ’s housing stock sustainable. We save a huge amount of electricity thanks to our solar panels, and they will have paid for themselves in a just a few years time.
  5. Make your appliances last.  Check reviews and warranties before you buy and opt for the most durable choices rather than the cheapest price.  Consider where it is manufactured and the labour conditions in the source country.  A handful of manufacturers offer much better parts service which allows you to repair and keep the appliance going for many years.  For example, Dualit offers a toaster with lifetime parts, and Magimix does something similar for their food processors (we have been able to replace parts very easily).
  6. Future proof your interior design.  Consider the likelihood that furniture will fit with future fashion changes, and make sure it is high quality construction and designed to last. Once you’ve make your choice don’t be tempted to change it just to keep up with fashion.
  7. Sort your rubbish.  When you make a dump trip don’t mix potentially repairable or surplus household items with green waste, and general rubbish.  If you sort things, you can always give away usable items to charity or advertise them via something like Neighbourly, Trademe, Ebay or similar.
  8. If you build a house, make it the minimum size you actually need.  Large houses have enormous carbon footprints and result in the production of far more manufacturing waste than small houses.  They are also more expensive to heat and they reduce space for nature.   The greenest house you can build is one you don’t build but renovate instead.  
  9. If you want a holiday property at the beach or by the river, consider camping on it instead of building another house. If you must have a bach, then make it small and easily moveable to prepare for future managed retreat of coastlines, ideally a tiny home that can be towed to new land.
  10. Choose your food carefully.  Animal products raised locally on pasture have a much lower environmental footprint than those which you can’t check how they are fed or cared for.  Many global food producers are responsible for horrendous destruction of rain forest for conversion to palm oil and soya, much of which is used for animal feed.  Grass fed local animals don’t have this impact. Likewise if you are vegan, make sure you are checking the origin of your food.  As noted above, palm oil hidden on the ingredients as vegetable oil and soya grown on cleared rainforest land are something to avoid.  Many reputable food suppliers have accreditations for their sourcing of these ingredients.
  11. Check you retirement investment portfolio.  I investigated many of the common NZ and Australian retirement funds which are available for Kiwisaver investments and found to my horror than many are investing in oil, mining, weapons and active deforestation of the Amazon.  My husband and I were deeply troubled and began to look into alternatives. One in particular which looks promising is Caresaver, and this is what we eventually chose, but you can also compare funds here. This simple action doesn’t take a lot of time and once you make the change to an ethical Kiwisaver option you are sending a powerful message to the banks and the government about what you think is acceptable. It is important that our investment actions match what we claim to be passionate about. The other thing is that this choice continues to support worthwhile causes indefinitely while you go on earning money and getting on with your life. Your choice of Kiwisaver fund is a powerful choice with far reaching consequences. I urge you to look into it and make the change to something ethical.
  12. Check on the environmental impact of your computing.  If you are creating a website check on the environmental implications of the hosting company here.  WordPress which I use for hosting doesn’t have a great record in this respect so I am investigating better options.  Remember that cloud storage, subscription online service and streaming (including online gaming) use huge amounts of electricity, most of which comes from fossil fuels.  Where possible choose a more efficient provider and where you can’t try contacting the company to lobby for change.
  13. Give feedback to companies about things you like or don’t like and ask questions.  Where is your soy sourced from?  Have you considered using recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic in your components?  Have you considered using compostable packaging? Would you consider stocking ethical choices in your shop?
  14. Don’t wait for the government to fix the planet.  Consider offsetting your carbon emissions by investing in carbon sequestration schemes directly.  That way you can make sure the scheme you choose is actually benefiting the environment and not just an accounting scheme.  Do your own carbon sequestration by joining up with a local community group to restore a river, beach or wetland.  How about growing or buying some trees for it? Some examples include Ekos and Carbonclick.
  15. Opt for eco-courier services where possible.  Some couriers make efforts to offset their carbon emissions and it is worth throwing your support behind companies that are prepared to make an effort. A couple of examples include Kiwi Express, and Urgent Couriers.
  16. When you are sending packages make an effort to use the new recyclable NZ Post paper bags. This is an exciting initiative that I am really pleased to see.  Packages coming from my family in Germany have been wrapped in brown paper for as long as I can remember, and other packages have come in tough padded paper bags.  I don’t know why it has taken so long to catch on here in NZ but now that it has let’s all support it.
  17. Buy a double skin drink bottle and an under-sink water filter and ditch single use plastic water bottles.  You’ll save money and cut your single use plastic consumption.
  18. Support companies which package their products in renewable packaging or none at all.  Here are a few suggestions. Health Post, Ethique, Thunderpants, Tumbleweed Tee’s, Proper Crisps.
  19. Sodastream vs bottles. This is something we have done as a way to reduce the amount of plastic bottles we have to deal with/recycle. We buy our syrups in glass bottles, or make our own from seasonal fruits.
  20. Have a compost heap and compost your food scraps rather than sending them to landfill where they will emit methane as they decompose. Home composting is a really big thing you can do to reduce needless food waste.  Instead of paying the wheelie bin company to cart away your household food scraps, you can make your own compost for the garden.  Anything that is not meat or fat can go in your compost heap.  You can even compost toilet rolls, cardboard boxes, newspaper, and (as home compostable packaging becomes more mainstream) you can even compost some bags and packages.  We have managed to do this quite successfully with Proper Crisps chippie packets.  Our compost heaps are functional but not perfect textbook examples of how to do compost.  Despite this our heaps have handled the compostable packaging we have thrown at them. There are some awesome rodent proof compost solutions available now if you are keen to get started.

So there you have it, a list of 20 things you can do now to have a positive impact on our planet and the environment you live in. We are completely dependent on our environment, without it we can’t survive. The damage we have been doing is often invisible to us as we struggle from one day to the next, but the impacts will be felt by our children and grandchildren and they will thank you for taking steps to make change. As a species we have created a built environment to live in and we forget that we are actually creatures of nature. We tend to think of nature as something to visit rather than something we depend on. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this and put the environment front and center in our lives. Every little thing you do has real power to promote positive change. As we head into a fresh year, take some time to consider how you can commit to reducing your impact on the environment and getting your voice heard.

How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment: we can start now, start slowly changing the world!” Anne Frank

Sustainable laundry – options to care for the environment while you wash the clothes!

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Freshly folded clothes straight off the clothesline with that sunny sweet smell. No electricity required, just the free sunshine and wind. My favorite Go Bamboo and Munch brand pegs. In the pink box is my Ethique laundry and stain remover bar.

Washing clothes is an endless task for many Mums and and it is never ever finished. No sooner have you dealt with one lot and there is another lot of dirty clothes building up in the dirty washing bin. The way we wash our clothes is also an area where we have made a few changes in the last year or so since we embarked on the journey to become more sustainable. The laundry is a place where we can all make small changes that will mount up and make a difference to the environment around us and contribute to the future we leave for our kids and grandkids.

Here are some ideas to inspire you to make some small but meaningful changes to your laundry in order to make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Most of them have an impact on our water, and so the laundry is an important place to start.

Soap nuts: I was very skeptical about these things, thinking that they were probably not very good. Then I got a bag of soap nuts given to me (for my birthday) and I was immediately fascinated and curious, after all I am slightly plant centric (being an avid gardener) and I am always interested in interesting plants. These things grow on trees and they wash your clothes, two of my boxes ticked straight away. My cousin told me she used them and was hooked. I tried washing our clothes with them and aside from some extremely filthy socks they did just as well as the conventional washing powders for almost every situation. I still use them when I can get them. You can use them multiple times and then you just throw the used shells into your compost! No plastic involved (just a cellophane bag).

Ecostore laundry liquids and powder: I find these products far better than those with artificial fragrance and enzymes. I have used Ecostore laundry products for years because I found them better for my sensitive skin and I prefer the scent of the natural fragrances to the artificial ones in other laundry products. They are safe for septic tanks and that means they are better for our environment. Additionally they are a NZ owned and operated business and they manufacture their products right here in NZ. This is really important for me when I choose products in the supermarket. I try to avoid imports to lessen the carbon footprint. There are now other eco-brands out there but Ecostore was one of the first and is an established quality brand

Ethique laundry bar: This little gem is a great little bar for taking tramping or travelling. It works very well as a spot stain remover and I use it all the time. I have taken it tramping and I would also take it traveling to use for hand washing items where there isn’t access to a washing machine.

Ethique Household concentrates: Spray cleaners often live in the laundry cupboard, and they usually come in plastic bottles. These are new products that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to trial, but a friend of mine has been using them and says they are brilliant. Spray cleaners are something that we all take for granted these days, but spray bottles are something that people usually dispose of and rebuy with the next shop each time they run out. It appears you simply break off a square, dissolve in water and pour into an old reused spray bottle. Spray bottles are a brilliant invention and they can last (if looked after) for many years. Why do we get a new one every time we replace the contents? Even the refills come in a plastic bottle. It seems like a terrible and un-necessary waste of plastic. The idea of a solid concentrate bars sounds brilliant. Until now, our solution had been to buy 4 litre bulk refills and reuse an old spray bottle. We might switch to these concentrates if they turn out to be as good as they sound.

Ecostore whitener: This stuff works just as well or better than the Napisan that is usually used to soak baby and toddler clothes. In fact years ago I switched to Ecostore whitener and never noticed any difference. I felt better about the ingredients in it and was happier to use the product for things that were in contact with the sensitive skin of my precious babies.

Wash cycle options: cold water over hot, eco-cycles to use less water, thus saving electricity to heat water. These options can appear as a bit of an obvious choice but many people overlook the value of something as simple as selecting a different wash cycle option.

Full loads only: In order to maximise the efficiency of your loads of washing, try (where possible) to do full loads of washing. The fewer loads of washing you do the better.

Avoid ironing if you can: Ironing uses electricity, it causes fabrics to deteriorate, and it shortens the life of your clothing. I very rarely use an iron because ironing is not a chore I have much time for in my busy family – although it is strangely satisfying to smooth creases out of clothes. Instead I chose clothing that is unlikely to require ironing. If you are a person who regularly uses an iron, here are a few tips to make ironing less necessary. Hang clothing on clothes hangers while still wet and let gravity and the weight of the water in the clothing pull the wrinkles out. Fold clothing (or sheets etc) straight off the line where you want the creases to be. Then put folded clothes in your drawers underneath other clothing which will help to further press them.

Wear it more than once: If you can reduce the amount you have to wash then you can reduce the number of washes that you do. Simple really!

Air dry your washing: Use a clothes line, or an airing rack on the veranda. This might appear obvious, but really it is an important action you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. The clothes drier uses a lot of electricity which costs you money. The sun and wind outside in the fresh air is absolutely free and uses no electricity. As an added bonus your washing gets that lovely fresh sunny smell. Line dried clothes last longer because there is less wear and tear which is an added bonus. In our house the cloths drier is always a last resort. We have a rotary clothesline, we have put a line up under our veranda and also have a hanging homemade clothes airer in our back porch. In some parts of the world there are restrictions placed on people to prevent them from using outdoor clothes lines. Here in New Zealand, caveats on some new developments are beginning to infringe on the rights of people to have a visible outdoor clothes line. If you are buying into a new development request a copy of the covenants from the real-estate agent. Take time to check that the caveats will not prevent you from line drying your clothes and instead lock you into an energy and carbon intensive requirement to use a clothes drier.

Sustainable clothes pegs: When replacing your plastic clothes pegs try stainless steel, bamboo or wooden pegs. I wrote a blog about this last year and after another year of use my old plastic pegs have almost completely disintegrated (after years of prolonged exposure to sunlight), but my eco pegs are still going strong. I am a convert to bamboo and stainless steel pegs, but if you really want plastic pegs then hunt out a brand of NZ made recycled plastic peg. Stainless steel and bamboo pegs work brilliantly though so don’t be afraid to try something more expensive. They really are worth it.

Choose natural fibres/fabrics: Consider the fabrics your clothes are made from and avoid synthetics that can break down to micro plastic particles and end up in streams and rivers. Microplastic contamination of the oceans is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.  Microplastics are defined as small particles of plastic that are 100nm to 5mm in size.  Fibres from synthetic fabrics can get into the water from our washing machines.  These microplastic particles are small enough to be ingested by many organisms and as a result there are concerns about bioaccumulation. This is not just an environmental problem but also a health problem for us because these microplastics make their way into soils and waterways and from there into the ocean and ultimately into the food chain. In most parts of New Zealand, the councils will allow you to reuse your greywater for irrigation purposes, but it is likely that you will have to install a greywater filtration system. If you reuse your greywater in this way it is all the more reason to consider very carefully what you put down the drain!

Although not directly related to your laundry, do remember to think mindfully about the type of clothing you buy and how much clothing you really need. We are constantly having seasonal fashion pushed at us and the pressure of “fast fashion” is everywhere. This marketing is a dangerous myth. Buy quality natural clothing that is made to last, and then when you wash it you won’t be contributing to the micro-plastic particles in our waterways. Additionally, you will be slowing the consumerist fast fashion machine that hurts the environment and the garment factory workers who manufacture your clothes in substandard conditions.

Choose lifetime guarantees: When buying or replacing a washing machine consider paying for the model with the longest guarantee and reputation for reliability. The longer the machine lasts the better it is for the environment. Planned obsolescence has a huge (and unnecessary) environmental impact. Consider the availability of spare parts for the machine, repairing is better than replacing.

Cane or wicker clothes baskets: Replace plastic clothes baskets that crack or break and contribute to the plastic disposal problem, with wicker ones. In the past this is something we have done, but currently I am guilty of owning three plastic washing baskets. I was given two of them and purchased the other one when we were away camping and a cane washing basket couldn’t be located. I take care of them and I am determined to make them last as long as possible before they reach the end of their lives. It was easier with the cane washing basket when it bit the dust. We composted parts of it and used the rest for kindling.

So there you have it, lots of ideas to help you to make your laundry more sustainable and environmentally friendly. There are so many things you can do, I am sure there are other ideas I have missed. Don’t be afraid to make some changes and try some new products. The impact of our choices mounts up in a way that is largely invisible to us, but every little change we make has a positive impact downstream. I know it can often seem hopeless when we are faced with the magnitude of the problems facing our environment. Despite this we have to start making changes somewhere, and looking after our fresh water is a very powerful, yet meaningful change to make. The laundry is a great place to start!

A joyful toyless Christmas – gifts that keep giving!

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As the end of the year charges up to meet us, the usual southern hemisphere heat, rush and chaos has descended.  Schools have finally finished, summer holidays have begun, kids are tired, the weather is scorching (but the water temperature is still cooler than we would like), and the end of year Christmas party season is upon us.  In our house this time of year includes a kids birthday just days before Christmas!  I am sure you will have noticed that 2020 has been an extraordinarily strange year, and now to make it even stranger as we approach Christmas, I am reading about Covid related shortages of toys!  This year has been full of tragedy for so many around the world.  Over a million people have died, essential workers are stretched, businesses have collapsed, people have lost their jobs, and doctors, nurses and epidemiologists are our heroes.   Here in New Zealand we have very little to complain about.  We have been blessed that other than a 6 week lockdown and a brief return to level 3 and 2, we have been blessed to be able to continue our lives largely as normal.  Reading the news brings us back to the covid19 reality of the rest of the world.  

In light of the global situation a few shortages seem pretty unimportant, and perhaps we need to get some perspective here.  Kids don’t really need gimmicks and toys if we are truly honest about it.  I think most of it comes from the adult idea about what makes us happy (and most of us have been sucked into consumerist ideas of happiness without even realising) and a desire to show affection in a visually tangible way (look how much I got you, look how big it is, and please notice how expensive it was…. That means I love you).  But if you stop and think about it, do you want piles of expensive toys that kids will grow tired of five minutes after it is assembled, or after every button has been pushed?  Adults have this funny idea about the “magic of Christmas” as if it has to be created.  But really there are many ways to experience joy and there are many ways to spread joy that you can achieve without resorting to Kmart, empty toy shelves and the immense pressure to purchase toys everywhere you go.

Here are some ideas you might not have considered to help you bring joy without toys and to create fun and experiences that will continue giving joy for years.

  • Sports equipment – good quality – listen to what your kids are interested in and buy things that will last for years.  That way if your kids move on from it you can pass it on to the Sallies (or any charity shop), sell it online or give it away to someone else.  Cheap stuff usually breaks and ends up in the landfill and that is something we all need to be trying to avoid.  Spend more on less and get quality.  Ideas include rugby balls, bike repair kits, cricket sets, tennis racket.
  • Cooking equipment – decent stuff you’d buy for yourself – cake decorating things, icing bags, books of ideas and techniques.  Choose stuff that will last, and encourage your kids to take care of it so it lasts a lifetime!  In the past we have given our kids measuring spoons, cups, and baking molds.  We even gave them small saucepans so they could use their own equipment.  Cookery books for kids are a great idea.  Even giving interesting ingredients will go down well.
  • Gardening things – Create a bit of garden for them to plant things in, or if you haven’t got space for a garden bed, try a wooden planter box. Perhaps buy the materials and help them to make it for themselves.  Give seeds, and seedling pots, plants, watering cans, garden trowels and hand forks.  Help your kids to discover the joy of gardening and learn together as a family.
  • Tool box and tools – again don’t be tempted to buy the cheapest stuff at the hardware store.  There is nothing fun about tools that don’t work properly or break when you are using them.  Seek advice and get something that will do the job well and will last if it is dropped!  I am thinking of builder’s pencils, tape measures, hammers and nails, a set of screwdrivers, a handsaw, little socket sets and the like.  If Mum or Dad or Grandpa like to tinker on the car or build things in the garage, then a toolbox with tools is a great Christmas or birthday idea.  I have seen simple pre-cut kitset bird tables, bookends, and planter boxes for sale and if you can’t find one or make up the pieces yourself, the chances are that you can find someone who can whip a kitset together for you in their garage (or try your local Menz Shed).
  • Books!  Do I need to say more? Books are a great gift for all ages and interests.  Books for information, how to guides, stories, facts, classics, books about sport, animals, monsters, technology, gardening, cooking, crafts, famous people, the list is endless.  Books are amazing.  Our kids all read, and they read ALL the time.  The secret to getting kids to read is to get them great books, to read to them and with them.  Read good stories out loud to the family after tea instead of turning on the TV.  Choose wisely, and look for literature rather than meaningless cutesy stories or that latest movie fad.  Go online and look for a list of great children’s authors and hunt out something really enduring.  Books by local authors often make more sense to kids because they feel familiar culturally. In our case, there are a vast array of amazing authors right here in NZ. Librarians are great at recommending books if you are stuck.
  • Craft supplies – Give gifts of fabric, elastic, soft toy patterns, eyes, buttons, needles, thread, sewing scissors, safety pins, knitting needles, and wool in exciting colours.  French knitting (you can make your own with a toilet roll and 4 popsicle sticks) or get a wooden one that will last and not disappoint. Crochet needles, knitting needles, felt, googly eyes, little beads.  Tee shirts and t-shirt paint! The list of possibilities goes on.  Don’t feel you have to buy kid themed things or pre-packaged boxed activities.  Adult things work better as a rule and are usually made to last. 
  • Art supplies – real art supplies. Go to a place that sells proper art things for adults and get them proper coloured pencils, sketch pencils, fine line pens (for outlining) gel pens, erasers, good quality metal pencil sharpeners, a paint box with a couple of good quality brushes, some sketch books, art pads, pencil boxes or oil pastels. Giving kids a creative outlet and something to experiment with is invaluable to developing creative minds and new skills.
  • Give adventures and experiences.  Take your kids tramping (if you’re outside of NZ you might know this as hiking, rambling or such like), buy them tramping gear of their own, go camping, take them to places like wildlife refuges (Pukaha Mt Bruce, Zealandia), museums (Te Papa), the zoo (Orana Park, Willowbank), a seal colony, etc.  Take them fishing. Go for a swim at the beach or the river and make a real expedition of it.  Make memories.
  • Games and puzzles for the family.  During lockdown board games and jigsaws were rediscovered by people everywhere.  A great game will bring hours of fun and entertainment.  They can be played by groups of friends, families, and all age groups.  Jigsaws are another family friendly activity that is worth considering.  We still get wet days in summer and often a puzzle is the perfect way to occupy kids.

All of these things make great presents for kids, and all of them will keep giving joy for many years.  If you buy quality you might end up with a little less under the tree, but what you give will last and can be passed on to others in the future instead of breaking and ending up in the landfill.

A couple of other ideas that might be fun to try out if you have a bit of time are gingerbread biscuits or if you are ambitious, what about a gingerbread house?  Try helping your kids to make the family Christmas Crackers.  A few funny jokes on bits of paper, small gifts, chocolates and Christmas decorations are all you need.  Write Christmas cards with the kids and post them to their friends.  Have you ever noticed how much kids LOVE getting a letter in the mailbox?  Make Christmas decorations one afternoon.  Get creative and see how many things you can find on a walk that you can decorate for the tree.  Help your kids to sew simple drawstring bags or hair scrunchies to give away as gifts.  Make lavender bags!  

Above all, take time out for yourselves to slow down and enjoy time together.  We are so often running around here, there and everywhere, or plugged into our devices, that we miss the simple joy of spending time together. 

These ideas have created joy in our family for years and I really hope and pray that they give you ideas for your families as well.  Sometimes less is more and I really do mean that.  Kids can actually create magic out of their imaginations, they don’t really need the latest Hollywood movie themed noisemaker or dress-up to have fun.  All they need is love at the end of the day.  And Love is what Christmas is all about.

Eating what we overlook

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I am really excited to have recently had a bit of an epiphany about what we class and edible and why.  I think, like many  people, I have become overly reliant on what is in the shops to guide my fresh food choices.  If it isn’t in the shop then (while I might be aware of it) I might not remember it or think of it when I am trying to choose fresh produce for my family.  If it isn’t there in the shop then I can’t buy it.  I think we are so blinded regarding what we can actually eat that we have can no longer see the possibilities.  For example I tend to forget that many flowers can be eaten and added to salads etc.  Take pineapple sage.  It is super pretty and attracts bees into the garden (and my 9 year old who likes to suck the nectar out of them), but I had never considered how they might be added to a salad to add flavour and a splash of brilliant red colour.

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Nasturtium capers!  I never realised that you could eat the leaves the flowers AND the seeds of these amazing plants.  All the more reason to plant some in your garden. 

I was looking for a relish recipe in one of my favorite recipe books and I noticed that you can pickle nasturtium seeds and use them like capers.  I was immediately curious and decided that a lockdown activity would be to pickle some.  I picked a jar of green nasturtium seeds and following a combination of several recipes I successfully pickled them. They have been maturing in the fridge since the lockdown and are now ready to open and try.   A friend told me they are crisp and crunchy and a bit spicy.  I can’t wait to crack them open the next time we make homemade pizza.

As New Zealand headed into the covid19 pandemic people suddenly started thinking about being more self sufficient as a way of making sure they could feed their families if things got really tough.  Seedlings and seeds were suddenly in demand.  One thing that didn’t occur to so many people is that the food we see and take for granted in the produce aisle is only a very small sample of the produce that is actually out there.  There are so many things that you can eat that you can’t buy in a supermarket or even at a green grocer (if you are lucky enough to have one local to you).  Perhaps an even bigger issue here is that the produce we see is often not the only part of the plant you can eat.

This latter point has come as a bit of a revelation to me as I considered during lockdown how I could provide for my family as we headed into winter AND tried to avoid unnecessary trips to the shop for produce that spoils quickly and can’t be stored in bulk.  This thought process has continued for me as we emerged from lockdown.  There are a lot of things that might be growing in your garden (flowers, herbs, fruits, vegetables and even “weeds”) unnoticed and unappreciated.  Just because you only buy a broccoli head doesn’t mean that is the only edible part of the plant.  When you buy a couple of beetroot tubers, shorn of their leaves and glad-wrapped onto a plastic tray it is easy to forget that the leaves are edible too.  A whole edible part of the plant has been removed and as a result we tend to forget about it and we are unable to make use of those parts in our cooking.  This has caused me to begin looking at the plants in my garden and the produce we eat differently.  I am surprised how much we waste because we forget that it can be eaten!  I hope to inspire you to look differently at your garden and the plants we consume.  So here is some food for thought.

  • People usually grow radishes for the root, but did you also know that you can also eat the green radish seed pods? Pick some to try with a salad.   That isn’t the end either because radish seeds can be used as a spicy sprouting seed, and as a micro-green.
  • Peas can be grown as a winter crop (although ours are off to a slow start) and everyone is familiar with peas in pods and shelling them into bowls.  But did you know that you know that you can also use peas shoots as a salad green, and you can eat the flowers?
  • Nasturtium flowers can be eaten, but so can leaves shoots and seeds (as caper pickles).  I have always loved nasturtiums.  I love the riot of flowers cascading out over paths and climbing over the top of boulders and tree stumps.  The flowers are so bright and vivid that I almost feel they hurt my eyes and are so bright they can’t be actually real.  I always find I am drawn the the intensity of the flowers, and so I always have them in my garden.  I have known for years that you can eat the flowers and I sometime dress up a salad by adding some.  But I didn’t know until this year that you can also eat the young leaves and the seeds as well.  We used the leaves in salad sandwiches during lockdown while we waited for our lettuce seedlings to get big enough to harvest from, and we loved them.
  • Beetroot is another plant that we often forget is about more than the root.  The young leaves can be used as a salad green as well and the leaves in general can be used like silverbeet. So often we think of beetroot as just coming in a tin but it is easy and rewarding to grow (providing you cover them to protect them from hungry birds).
  • When people pick celery they usually discard the leaves.  But celery leaves can be used to flavour soup stocks, and can be chopped into salads as well.  Personally I always use celery leaves when I am making soup stock.
  • Pumpkin is another versatile vegetable that has many more possibilities that the big ripe orange fruit we tend to think of.  For example pumpkin leaves are edible and can be used to wrap food for steaming.  The young shoots and leaves can apparently be steamed and eaten like silverbeet.  Small baby pumpkins can be used like courgettes.  The flowers can be added to salads and the seeds can be saved for next year.
  • Broccoli is an incredible plant with so many possibilities that you won’t see in the supermarket produce aisle.  Broccoli leaves can be used in both salads and stir fries, and they can be used like cabbage.  Broccoli is much more that just the delicious flower heads we usually consume.  If one of your plants goes to seed, you can sprout the seeds and eat them (and you can collect and save the seed for next year).  Even the flowers themselves can be used in salads.  So many more possibilities than you might think!
  • I only learned recently that the leafy green tops of carrots can also be eaten.  According to my investigations they are nutritious and taste of carrots with a parsley overtone.   I gather that they are rather coarse so might benefit from being finely chopped if you are adding them to salads raw.  I think they sound perfect for adding to soups and soup stocks.  The leaves are apparently a rich source of vitamin c (containing more than the root).  Who knew that?  All those years of discarding the tops!  I am going to try this the next time I make soup.
  • I have heard of growing mustard before (as micro-greens) but I hadn’t realised that the mature plant can be eaten as well.  You can eat them as sprouts, micro-greens, and as leafy greens for salads and sandwiches.  Apparently the stems (before they get woody) can be eaten and taste a bit like spicy asparagus.  You can eat the flowers, and finally the seeds can be made into your own whole grain mustard.  You can bet I am going to explore this vegetable further.  I have just planted some out into the garden .  I am watching and waiting impatiently for the seedlings to grow a bit bigger before I start plucking leaves off to taste.
  • Even some things we usually class as weeds can be eaten e.g. dandelion and plantain leaves.  I have to admit that this is an area that I am not very knowledgeable about yet.  I just hadn’t really stopped to think that I might have food plants growing all over the place but that I have been overlooking.

I think my grandparents knew a thing or two about growing produce and surviving through tough times.  They lived through the great depression and two world wars and they raised a family awhile living a more frugal and self sufficient lifestyle.  They always had a variety of well maintained fruit and nut trees, and a productive vegetable garden.  As the years have gone by it seems that many of the subsequent generations have lost a lot of the knowledge our grandparents took for granted.  Growing your own produce and preserving the surplus was normal for them.  They saved seed, bottled, dried, preserved, and pickled away happily while producing a lot of the produce they needed for their growing family.  The art of growing vegetables and fruit has been lost as consumerism has driven a change in how we shop and provide for our families.  Important knowledge (like how much of a plant is edible) has increasingly been lost as well, and the way we buy food in supermarkets limits what you can actually get.

Discovering that nasturtium seeds could be preserved and that the leaves taste amazing in salads and sandwiches was the beginning of a revelation.  I had been blind to how much edible green produce was sitting in my garden.  I didn’t need to worry about how we would provide fresh produce during lockdown, because we had an abundant supply of things we had never considered just sitting in our garden.   For me this feels like the start of an exciting new stage in my gardening journey.  I really hope I inspire you to look again at what you have in your garden.  It is easy to be blinded by what is laid out in the produce aisle, but what they don’t provide is even more exciting.  Don’t be afraid to try something new or to put in a vegetable patch.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Ideas for isolation – more recipes for scarcity

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Hearty homemade soup and overnight bread.  An easy way to stretch your resources and produce simple nourishing food your family will love.  A great way to avoid food wastage and make do with less.

Around the world people are grappling with a new world view.  After nearly 5 weeks in lockdown we in New Zealand are about to emerge slightly from the extreme rules of the level 4 restrictions.  We have learned (and I mean my family personally, but hopefully all of us collectively as well), that things look different from inside our “bubbles”.  Our bubbles have provided an odd sense of perspective that perhaps our busy lives have been lacking.  An enforced slowing of the normally frenetic pace of life.  Things that seemed important (getting to the shops after school, fitting in play dates, birthday parties, and sports practices, buying cloths, or take away coffee), don’t seem as pressing when you are looking at the world from the (hopefully) safe confines of your bubble.  A collective purpose to protect the vulnerable members of our families and communities is more than enough reason to sacrifice our freedom temporarily.   Perhaps you (like us) have had time to discover the joys of being with your kids, having time to play lego, enjoy board games and family jigsaws, have movie nights and snuggle longer  in the mornings.  

This new world of bubbles is definitely not easy, and homeschooling kids is mind bending.  I have taken to educating by stealth – hoping they won’t notice they are learning and studying until they look back later.  Add to that, working from home and it can feel exhausting.  That’s because momentous change is exhausting.  So I reckon its import that we go easy on ourselves and just do what we can.  There is no point in comparing yourself to anyone else.  Their  situation is not the same as yours.

Covid-19 has ushered in a desire in many people to be more self-sufficient and to rediscover the joy of cooking.   Going forward, the traditional ways to feed our families may not be as reliable or easy to access.  As the coronavirus spread, so too did the panic buying – toilet paper, pasta, flour, yeast and even seedlings and seeds.  Obviously people were suddenly visualising a future where greater self-sufficiency might give them greater security.

Because of the abundance of time on our hands, it seems many New Zealanders have suddenly turned to the idea of a home garden.  I think this is a hugely positive step for the population to be taking.  Every person who has pots or a tiny patch of garden can start producing nutritious fresh produce to supplement their families diet.  If you have enough space then you can actually grow pretty much everything you need to eat.  I encourage everybody to take the time to start growing food.  It is good for the soul and good for the body. 

I know that one of the things I have found hardest in lockdown is the need to cook mindfully.  By that I mean rationing butter and other ingredients to make sure they last as long as possible so that our trips to the supermarket are infrequent.   Also making things from scratch takes a bit more planning and time than I have often had in pre-corona times.  Everyone seems at least to be enjoying the meals coming from my kitchen so that is a blessing.

One of our go to dishes for the winter months is a good hearty soup.  I call it elbow soup because the amounts that I put in are estimated by the “feel in my elbow”.  No soup is ever the same twice because I very rarely have the same set of ingredients to hand.  My Grandma used to keep a pot of soup on the stove and throw all her leftovers into it.  She was a renowned soup maker.  She taught my Mum, and Mum taught me.  Now I am teaching my three kids.  This has turned out to be one of our easiest lockdown lunches.  It is flexible and works with whatever I have handy.  What I love about soup is that it gives us the opportunity to change our perception of useless or inedible by turning disparate scraps into a rich new creation.

Every soup I make starts with good stock.  I do buy dried stock powder, but wherever I possibly can, I always make my own.  Vegetable, or chicken stock is my go to soup starter, but you can also use beef stock.  Soup stock is something you can make yourself, it doesn’t need to come in individual plastic containers or in a plastic jar.  A simple way to make a healthy meal for your family also has the added benefit of using food scraps that would otherwise go to waste, and saving you a trip to the shop and potentially the environmental impact of plastic packaging.  I hope you find these recipes simple and useful during the strange times we are living through.

Homemade soup stock:

Next time you have a roast chicken (or any chicken actually), save the bones and boil them up.  Boiling the bones is where the flavour and goodness comes from.  We always boil up the remains of a roast and I will usually get two boilings off one chicken frame.  The first is more meaty than the second boiling and so I tend to add more veges and herbs to the second boiling to bulk it up a bit.  I create a bouquet garni, which consists of a sprig of rosemary, thyme, oregano, half a teaspoon of black pepper corns and maybe a bay leaf.  Sometimes I add parsley, but I am not traditional about this, I just add what I have to hand and what I think will add a nice flavour.  You are supposed to tie them into a muslin bag or tie them together in a bunch, but I just throw them in the pot with the bones (or vegetables) and strain the lot through a sieve when the stock is finished.  I also throw in a roughly chopped clove of garlic and and a slice or two of onion.  Sometimes I put in carrot peelings, celery leaves, and mushroom stalks.  All these things add to the flavour but you can just go with the basic herbs and pepper together with garlic and onion.  Cover the bones with water and bring to the boil before reducing the heat and simmering slowly until the liquid has reduced by about half (or until the flavour is good).  Sieve the stock into a clean container with a lid (discard the bones and bits or if you are going to boil them a second time start over adding fresh herbs and veges etc and repeat), allow to cool and then freeze it.  If you are using the stock immediately to make a soup, then decant it into a large pot and progress with the soup. 

I make vegetable stock by throwing into the pot everything as before (except the bones obviously).  I add more garlic, onion and celery (You can use celery leaves in stock).  Then I add anything that is a vegetable that I have to hand.  Odd bits of pumpkin, celery,  potato and carrot peelings and ends, mushroom stalks etc and boil up as for chicken stock.  

My “elbow”soup recipe:

Once you have your soup stock (instant stock powder or cubes is fine if you haven’t got a homemade stock) you are ready to begin your soup.  I always cast about the bottom of the vegetable bin for old mushrooms, slightly wizened looking carrots (with a bit of life), bits of limp looking cauliflower or broccoli.  In short anything that might be a little past its best that might otherwise be discarded. I put those in first, Chopping into 1cm chunks if I intend to end up with a chunky soup, and throwing in bigger chunks if I intend to mouli, sieve or blend it.  Then I cast around in the fridge for any leftovers and throw those in.  I use leftover rice, stir fry, pasta, pasta bake, spaghetti bolognaise, sausages or chicken.

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I usually put in some or all of the following:

  • tomatoes, (however many feels right to me – but usually between 2 and 8 depending on size and availability.  If I have a half used tin of tomatoes or pasata sauce I will put that in too.
  • a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic.  If I lack garlic I have sometimes used garlic salt.
  • one or two medium potatoes or left over mashed potato
  • bits of bacon (I am always sparing with the bacon and I use it for flavour rather than bulk).
  • a sausage or two.  I either cook them up especially for the soup or use any that are left over from previous meals.  Simply slice them and add.  Frankfurters are good too.
  • a carrot, grated or sliced
  • frozen corn if I have any
  • left over baked beans
  • pearl barley, red or brown lentils
  • left over porridge or a handful of porridge/rolled oats
  • sour cream
  • smoked paprika
  • a teaspoon of mixed herbs
  • some fresh ground black pepper
  • salt to taste
  • celery
  • spring onions,
  • pumpkin or kumara
  • pasta or rice (leftovers get used first to save wastage).
  • chives
  • parsley
  • mushrooms
  • a nice fresh courgette but I don’t use too much and always add near the end of cooking so they retain their colour and flavour.

Once I have finished adding the ingredients, I bring it to the boil stirring to make sure nothing sticks and then I reduce the heat and let it simmer on a low heat for as long as I can stirring every now and again.  I find the longer the better for flavour development. Add extra water if it is getting too thick.  If  the soup is to be moulied check things like lentils are soft and tender and that harder ingredients like carrot and potato are soft. Then I mouli the lot.  Sometimes we like to have noodles in our soup so I add cooked pasta after I have moulied it.  Sometimes I moulie the soup pasta and all.

Taste the soup and adjust the flavours to your taste.  My Mum always says soup tastes better if left overnight but soup isn’t safe in our house for long and so we very rarely have soup left to sample next day!

Overnight bread:

To go with your amazing soup you could try making your own bread.  During lock down, getting hold of flour and yeast has been more difficult that usual.  We have enough but are trying to make our supply stretch for as long as possible.  I was also concerned about friends and family trying to make their flour and yeast stretch the distance so I did some looking and found a recipe for overnight bread.  It is the simplest bread I have made yet.  No knead, no fuss, just simple and delicious.

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You need a casserole dish with a lid ( the deeper the better) or a dutch oven.  If you don’t have something with a lid use a deep oven dish and cover with tin foil instead.  You will also need baking paper.  I have found that I can reuse my baking paper several times before it reaches the end of its life.  

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups of flour (standard white flour nothing fancy)
  • half a teaspoon of active yeast (granules) or one teaspoon of Surebake.
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 1/2 cups of water.   I have used both luke warm water and straight cold water from the tap.   I think the warm water is better if it is a really cold night but both work fine

Simply mix the ingredients together in a bowl.  It makes a very sticky dough much wetter than my usual dough.  Sometimes when I am mixing it it seems a bit drier than usual so I add a little bit of extra water (say a tablespoon or two) in little dribbles until all the dry flour is mixed in.

Then cover with a plate and leave on your bench overnight.  I leave mine for between 8 to 12 hours, and on occasion even 24 hours.  It is very forgiving and so far I haven’t noticed any difference in the finished bread.  

Next day after 8 (or more) hours scrape the dough out onto some baking paper that you have sprinkled liberally with flour, and using floured fingers or a spatula shape it into a roughly circular shape.  This doesn’t have to be perfect, just rough. 

Leave for 30 mins to rest.  While the dough is resting, turn your oven on to 220°C and put your casserole or dutch oven or oven dish into the oven to pre-heat. 

When the rest period is over, use a serrated knife to cut a rough cross into the top of the dough, remove the preheated casserole from the oven (carefully because it is super hot) lift the bread dough on the baking paper and drop the whole lot into the casserole, cover with the lid, and place in the oven for 30 mins.

After thirty minutes carefully (it will be VERY hot) remove the lid and return the bread to the oven for a further 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and lift out of the casserole using the baking paper and place on a wire rack to cool.

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Finished!  It just needs to be lifted out to cool on a wire rack.  It smells incredibly good.

It will make a very crusty and super yummy loaf to go with your soup, or to simply enjoy with stretched butterI have no idea how well it keeps because it never lasts our family of 5 for more than one meal!  I do note that it is easier to cut when it is cooled a bit. 

I hope these recipes are helpful and inspire you to try making your own soup and bread.  Let your kids try making their own bread and soup for the family.  This is a skill they will definitely be grateful to have when they are flatting in the future.  In the mean time, look after yourselves, stay safe, and be kind.

Kia kaha (stay strong), this too shall pass.

Recipes during scarcity – making what you have go further

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A selection of  what I have bottled over the last 10 days.  When I get stressed I like to be doing something, and recently that has translated to preserving.  From left:  Quinces, mixed peaches, “blackboy” peaches, “golden queen” peaches, gherkin pickles, tomato chutney, homemade tomato pasta sauce, and bottled pears.

It has been a quite while since I have been able to post a blog.  Writers block, combined with the general rush and exhausting frenzy of being a Mum with three kids and a part time job, has really affected my writing output.  Since my last post I (like the rest of New Zealand and the world) find myself facing a new and surreal situation.  Here in NZ we are locked down in our homes, united in our isolation as we face the new reality of Covid-19.  This is an unprecedented situation that none of us have faced before.  It is frightening and unknown.  We are unable to leave our homes except for supplies and medical needs, and the world has shrunk to the size of our houses and backyards.  Schools are closed, normal life has ground to a complete halt.  Each day I read the news with increasing apprehension and yet it is hard to look away. I keep reading with disbelief.   We are staying home to save lives, by staying home we all become heroes.  Faced with no libraries, no playgrounds, no socialising, and no cafes, what are we all going to do?

So far our time here has been spent chopping wood, and preparing our winter vegetable garden.  We are well into autumn in NZ, but we still have warm days so things should be able to get a good start before the weather turns properly miserable.

I thought I would share a few ideas to help you find some activities to keep busy and potentially stretch out your supplies.  Particularly regarding making what you have go further.   To that end I am re-sharing my bread and stretched butter ideas from previous blogs.  Simple but effective, I hope you find them as useful as we do.  I am also sharing some ideas for preserving what you might have in your garden or might be able to obtain from a neighbour.

Bottle your own fruit: 

Many people have fruit trees in their gardens (sometimes they are completely forgotten), and many of them will still be covered in fruit.  Our peach tree has just yielded its last fruit and our pear is covered in fruit that is yet to fully ripen.  Usually during the week you (like me) might find yourself too busy to do anything other than gather a few things for the fruit bowl.  But now…. facing four weeks at home, perhaps there is a fruit tree laden with fruit that might otherwise go to waste.  Suddenly there are a lot of people are thinking more about self sufficiency.  One way to be more self sufficient is to bottle and preserve your own fruit.  Or you might find you have a last crop of tomatoes, why not try making chutney or relish?  It is super easy and it looks great, and the chances are you can do it all at home without leaving the house. There are lots of recipes online to give you ideas.    Have a go see what you can make, bake and preserve using what you have.  Perhaps one of your neighbours might have a fruit tree and would be happy to pick a bag for you and leave it at your letterbox.  Sort through your recycling to find your old jam jars and pasta sauce jars if you don’t have preserving jars.

To bottle fruit you need:  jars with “popping” lids that seal (or screwbands and new seals if you have them), fruit, sugar, and water.

I use the basic method for hot pack bottling from the Edmonds Cookery Book.   The Edmonds Cookbook has the proportions of sugar to water for different fruits, and all the tips and tricks you need.   It sounds complicated to a lot of people, but it is really not so hard once you know what you are doing.   If you are uncertain try finding recipes or watching some video’s online.

Freeze what you can’t use now:

Another idea is to freeze any garden produce so you can retain the last of the gardens summer bounty to use later.  Beans and celery freeze well, so do diced carrots.  Even tomatoes can be frozen to cook with later (though not to eat in salads as freezing makes them mushy).  Beans, celery, and rhubarb should be blanched before freezing.  I do that by chopping  them and dropping them into a pot of fast boiling water for one minute before draining and plunging them into cold water.  Chop up pumpkin into 2cm chunks and freeze for later use in soups or for roasting.  If you have blackberries, raspberries or strawberries, you can freeze those to use throughout the year in baking, smoothies, desserts or to make into jam on cold rainy days.

Make your own tomato pasta sauce:

To make your own tomato pasta sauce you will need – tomatoes, onion, basil (dried or fresh), oil, garlic, black pepper, salt, and some jars with lids that seal.

This homemade pasta sauce is simple and easy to make and it tastes absolutely wonderful.  If you have jars and tomatoes you have pretty much everything you need.  Other veges can be added or omitted depending on what you have to hand.  I got my initial recipe from a book called Coromandel flavour – a year of cooking at the bach.  I have found this recipe to be so flexible and easy to adapt that I can add all kinds of things.

You will need: Roughly 1kg of tomatoes (preferably not cherry tomatoes, you really want something a bit bigger if you can get your hands on them).  A couple of tablespoons of oil (olive oil if you have it).   A good sized clove of garlic.  One medium onion.  About 10-12 fresh basil leaves if you have them, otherwise a teaspoon or two of dried basil.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Simply cut your tomatoes in half and remove the core at the stalk end.  In a large pot or frying pan heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil (or cooking oil if you don’t have olive oil).  If you have onion and/or garlic chop and add it, if not never mind because when you come to open the jar you can always add the onion when you are preparing the actual meal instead of when you are bottling the pasta sauce.  When the onion is translucent, add the tomatoes and half the basil (roughly chopped or dried depending on what you have) to the pot/pan.  Cook uncovered on a low heat, stirring regularly to prevent sticking.  The tomatoes will give out their juices and the skins can be picked out as they roll up and separate from the flesh as they cook. The skins are pretty easy to spot because they are a darker red.  When the sauce has reduced to a thick jam-like consistency add in the last of the basil, and either serve with pasta or bottle the sauce to use at a later date.  I sometimes add chopped capsicum and celery to my sauce to add variety and use up other things in the garden or fridge.  If you don’t have jars with lids, your could freeze it in suitable quantities in plastic containers to be thawed at at later date.

Make your own bread:

Facing 4 weeks in lockdown there is no better time to try your hand at making your own bread.  I shared my bread recipe in a blog post a while back.  Nothing is more wholesome than the smell of fresh hot bread and your family will demolish it before you can blink.  It is truly filling and well worth the effort.  If you have yeast then have a go and you won’t look back.  I know that not everyone has yeast at the moment since people have cleared it from the supermarket shelves during lockdown panic buying, but never fear, there are other ways to make bread.

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Homemade soda bread, so called because it uses baking soda instead of yeast.  I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe to make this loaf.   Spread with “stretched” butter, it tasted amazing.

He is a link to Jamie Oliver and his little boy Buddy making soda bread during the lockdown in the UK.  Soda  bread uses baking soda instead of yeast.  I tried it with the very last of our wholemeal flour and it worked beautifully.  I did a google search and turned up a recipe for soda bread using only white flour, so don’t worry if you haven’t got wholemeal flour.  Get the kids to help kneading and measuring.

Stretched butter: 

Butter is something we are struggling a bit to get hold of during lockdown.  In our family butter is something we go through incredibly fast, so now that it is harder to get, I have begun “stretching” my butter again.  This way we can extend the time between trips to restock.   The way we do this is to “stretch the butter” using an old WW2 rationing trick that I wrote about in an earlier blog. This brilliant trick means you can make your butter last twice as long, and it is soft and spreadable.  All you need is butter, oil, and water.  What could be better?  Follow the link to my earlier post with the recipe and instructions.

If you are homeschooling your kids during lockdown, getting them involved with measuring ingredients is one way to cover off maths work.  Measurement is measurement after all, and it is a lot easier to do maths if you can eat it, than with a pen and paper when there are lots of things to distract you (like the lego box).  Following recipes help kids with reading and sequencing as well as measurement.  Learning in the kitchen is very popular with my kids.

Being alone with my own thoughts doesn’t scare me at all…. in fact, as a mother, I treasure the moments when I get to spend even a few minutes just thinking without interruptions (not that I don’t love the interrupters with all my being).  Never-the-less as I have absorbed the new locked-down world I find myself in, I have found a little ray of hope shining though.  This is what humanity can do.  We can actually unite.  We can all band together to do the same thing at the same time.  Perhaps there is hope for a global response to the climate and environmental emergency’s that are engulfing our planet.

We have to survive the pandemic first, but this is a demonstration of the best that humanity can offer.  Our ability to love and care for someone or something other than ourselves.

One more step on the plastic free journey – bamboo cotton buds.

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A sweet solution to one part of the single use plastic problem. Plastic free cotton buds. On the left, Go Bamboo brand and on the right, The humble co.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is largely invisible.  The water looks blue and the waves sparkle in the sunlight, but beneath the surface there are microplastics, and they are being ingested by the fish that end up on our plates.  There is also larger plastic rubbish washing up on beaches, and being ingested by our precious bird species, which leads to the starvation of chicks and adults.  Although it is usually invisible, every breaking wave on the shore is carrying a burden of plastic pollution!  We have to take steps to change our consumer choices and reduce our consumption of plastic.

Plastic pollution is a huge problem for our generation to grapple with.  Plastic can seem like the simple solution to so many problems.  For decades we have been seduced by how cheap it is, how light weight it is, how durable it is, how easy to replace, and now it is  found everywhere.  The problem of plastic pollution is now a problem so overwhelming that it is often very hard to find plastic free alternatives to anything.  Worse still we have become blind to single use plastics, seeing them as convenient and necessary.   Happily there are a growing number of companies that provide sustainable alternatives to plastic items we usually just take for granted (or at least I did until a few years ago).  I became concerned with the state of our climate, our environment, our water, and the future that we are leaving for our children to face.  Greta Thurnburg is right when she says that we should be ashamed of the future we are leaving for our children to clean up.  I have been bothered by that thought since before Greta began her school strike.  It is what motivated me to begin to make small changes as often as I can to look after this precious planet.

Cotton buds are common in many houses, they live in bathrooms and make-up bags everywhere.  They are intended to be discarded after use (who wants to reuse a cotton bud?)   Almost all of them are plastic these days, but when I was a kid the stems were made from rolled paper (like some lolly pop sticks still are).  Somewhere between my childhood and today, they switched to plastic.  Suddenly they couldn’t go in the kindling box, or the compost anymore.   I remember my Mum and I discussing it and being frustrated that we just had to throw them in the rubbish.  Three years ago, I began looking seriously into alternatives for plastic products and I came across bamboo cotton buds.  Our family switched as soon as we needed to buy new cotton buds, and we have never regretted it.  The switch was not hard at all.  The first ones we found were Go Bamboo cotton buds.  They are 100% biodegradable and the box is unbleached cardboard so that it can be composted.

Then in January this year I found that The Humble co. makes cotton buds too.  These are also 100% biodegradable, and the packaging is made from recycled cardboard.  These cotton buds are pink tipped if you prefer colourful cotton buds.  There is no good reason that I can think of not to make the switch to bamboo cotton buds.  If cost is a concern just consider the cost to the environment instead.  The image of a seahorse holding on to a cotton bud is not a pretty picture, and I am not about to let my cotton buds get into the ocean or contribute to the growing plastic pollution problem.  I want my kids to see that as a family we can make a positive impact rather than a negative one.  Every action (no matter how small) has real power to effect change.   Reduce, reuse, re-purpose, repair, recycle.  As soon as you find an alternative to plastic that is sustainable, switch to it.  Let your purchasing power speak for you.

Miss 9 is a member of her schools enviro group.  The school has been working towards its EnviroSchools Green-Gold award.  In a couple of weeks the judges are coming to see if the school as done enough to achieve this goal.  My daughter is passionate about the environment and I am stunned at her drive and determination.  If she can walk the walk at school with her friends, I am determined we will do the same at home.  She is refusing to use shampoo in plastic bottles because she knows how big the plastic problem is.  Instead she has been using my Ethique shampoo bars on the sly.  Even telling her that the Ecostore shampoo that we buy comes in sugar plastic bottles from a renewable source doesn’t dissuade her from her desire to avoid using products in plastic.  She finds this really hard at times when popular toys she is keen on turn out to be plastic, but most of the time she sticks to her guns and prefers to avoid it.  Honestly – if a nine year old girl can make tough decisions to avoid plastic, then so can the rest of us.  Start with choosing plastic free cotton buds next time you need some, a plastic free dish brush or plastic free clothes pegs.  We owe it to our children to do something now.

Backyard Conservation – making a difference in your own corner of the world.

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A NZ dotteral, one of those rare species that we share our country with.  This little bird was blissfully unaware that the person photographing it is one of those who has endangered it.  This little bird has no voice to beg for a future unless I (and my fellow humans) speak for it.

Conservation and restoration is vital to our survival as a species.  It’s important because we inhabit this world together with a myriad of creatures both large and tiny.  The way we lead our lives, dispose of our waste, decide what to purchase, and even what pets we own has an impact on the species’ with which we share New Zealand and the world.  They have no voice unless we choose to advocate for them.  No chance unless we value them, and no future if we don’t take action.  

New Zealand is rather special in that it was the last large habitable land mass in the world to be colonised by humans.  It is also the most recent large landmass to experience an extinction event.  New Zealand was the last ‘primeval’ wilderness on the planet, and as such it was utterly unique.  The extinction event in NZ occurred as a result of the arrival of humans, first Maori and then the subsequent arrival of European explorers and settlers.  Often I think we tend to view the extinction events associated with the arrival of humans in NZ as being in the past (done and dusted years ago), but in reality we are living right in the middle of it.  It isn’t over. We just don’t notice it happening and that is the real tragedy. We just don’t notice until it is too late!

Maori brought the pacific rat or kiore.   Then Europeans brought mice, norway rats, ship rats, black rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets,  catspossums, hedgehogs and more.    New Zealand’s native fauna evolved for millions of years in isolation. An enchanted archipelago of islands where birds and insects filled almost every niche that mammals would have occupied elsewhere.  We even have a ground foraging bat!  It was like nowhere else in the world.  If we don’t do something to stop the extinctions, and halt the decline of our threatened and unique species, then all we will have are animals that can be found elsewhere.  We will no longer be unique.

But it was not only the introduction of predators that decimated our native flora and fauna.  Maori began clearing the land through the use of fire, and the clearances intensified after the arrival of European settlers.  The signature of these two waves of land clearance show up in pollen and charcoal records from around NZ.  In some places the bands of charcoal are still visible in soil profiles today.

The clearances were unimaginable in scale.  Most of NZ is now denuded and bare of its native forests and ecosystems. What remains is still threatened in most places.   Against the saws and the fires of clearance our majestic forests stood no chance.  Now as you drive around NZ you drive through kilometers of rural landscapes, green grassy paddocks and hills dotted with sheep and cows and pine forestry.  But those same grassy fields should have towering trees covering them, filled with kokako, huia, and piopio. Sometimes when I look at the fields around me I feel heart sick at what we have lost.

A little over a year ago we managed to buy our first home.  Two acres of rural bliss, with a handful of pet sheep and some chickens to keep us busy.  One thing we decided to do is to replant parts of the property in locally rare native plants in order to create a seed source. We located some amazing local native plant nurseries that specialise in the specific plants for our particular part of the world.  Then we just started planting as often as we could afford to buy the plants.

We fenced off small areas at the edges of our paddocks to create windbreaks and shelter for our sheep.  These areas are being replanted with natives. Not everything has survived, we estimate that we have had a 20% loss rate among the things we have planted.  This loss rate is largely attributed to the damaged soil resulting from more than a hundred years of being farmed. The plants are in puggy degraded soils completely unlike the rich soils that would have been here 200 years ago and there is no shelter.  It is hard work getting anything established in that.

I recently planted a selection of native plants with my 9 year old daughter and 6 year old son.  We turned over the sods and shook the soil from the clumps of grass roots, and I found myself feeling excited as I watched the hands of my children placing native trees into the soil.  It felt good to work together to put things back the way they should be, even if it is only a tiny area.

Some things we can put back, like the plants I planted with my children.  But some things are gone for good.  There are no huia now, no matter what I plant, they are gone for good.  There are no kakapo here anymore and no kiwi either.  I might not get huia, kakapo or kiwi back by planting a seed source, but I will get, more geckos, skinks, wetas, tui, bellbirds, fantails and kereru.  It is worth all the effort just to get them.

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Evergreen buckthorn is an invasive weed that we have on our property.  It is fast growing and seedlings are coming up everywhere.  It quickly over shadows other plants.  I have been working hard to remove them from our garden beds.  This is one days worth of weeding out.

We depend on plants and vegetation for our environment so we need to plant intelligently.  At various times and for various reasons, exotic plants have been introduced to New Zealand.  Unfortunately many of them were unwise choices.  Invasive plant species such as gorse, ivy, old mans beard, pampas, sycamores, evergreen buckthorn, elaegnus and many more are a huge problem.  Invasive weeds destroy our native plant communities and ecosystems.  In light of this, another way that we are trying to make a difference in our little slice of heaven, is to systematically weed out any noxious weeds that we find.  We have a LOT of ivy to eradicate, and also a lot of evergreen buckthorn.  Given how prolific both buckthorn and ivy are with their seeding I imagine this is going to be an ongoing occupation for many years.   If you are keen to “do your bit” then familiarise yourself with the noxious weeds in your area and remove them from your property.

Consider bees (both native and introduced) when you plant your garden.  Put in some flowers for them, or plant manuka!  New Zealand has 28 species of native bees.  Our bees don’t produce honey or live in hives, but they do provide a critical but overlooked role in pollinating native plant species such as kanuka, manuka and pohutukawa. Throwing a few native plant species in your garden will help our little native bees.

I have always been passionate about NZ.  It is the only home I have ever had and the only place I would ever call my turangawaewae (place to stand).  I am a part of this place, it is a part of me.  I feel much the same about protecting our native flora and fauna and land as I do about protecting my children.  

Don Merton is one of my personal heroes, and I remember watching the Wild South TV series back in the 1980’s.  I was enthralled by the story of the Black Robins and how Don Merton was able to help rescue the species from just 5 individuals.  Here is a short video where he talks about saving the black robins.   He summed up the value of our native birds in this superb quote:

“They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out“.

He was talking about birds but it applies equally to insects, reptiles, amphibians, plants and our unique ecosystems.  In NZ we are teaching our children about the value of our native species and how to care for them and our environment But how often do we as New Zealanders actually model those behaviors at home?  We claim to want our children to value conservation efforts and protect our environment, but how do we show it?

Conservation can seem daunting when you step back and look at the scale of the problem. But doing your bit doesn’t have to be huge or onerous, it can be as little as reconsidering what shrubs you plant or taking the time to trap rats.  Here are some ideas to get you started.  One or two steps are all that you need to do to begin to make a real difference in your own backyard.

Ways to help NZ native species in your own back yard:

  • Weta motels
  • Lizard lounges and gardens
  • Consider the food sources in your garden and consider a nectar feeder to attract tui, bell birds and wax eyes.
  • Predator resistant compost heaps
  • Predator resistant rubbish bins
  • Removal of invasive weed species
  • Planting native food and shelter plants.
  • Sponsorship of an endangered species
  • Purchase of a humane predator trap e.g.  Goodnature traps – a humane, simple, and effective way to manage pest species in your back yard and around your property.
  • Careful management of pet cats and dogs. Keep track of your pets.
  • Go out into nature and teach yourself and your tamariki to value the things that are hidden in plain sight.  Taking time to go out and see the amazing animals and plants we share NZ (and our world) with.  Visit places like Pukaka Mt Bruce, Zelandia, Nga Manu, Hinewai, Orokonui Ecosanctury or just take the time to go on a day walk or and overnight tramp in our national parks and reserves.  It is easy to overlook the beauty that is all around us if we spend our lives with our eyes on a screen or cooped up inside.
  • Create your own mini native sanctuary in your backyard.
  • If you own a farm consider planting native shelter, fencing your waterways, creating native forest corridors to allow birds and insects etc to move from one place to another.  Perhaps you could consider it a “tithe” for nature.  Consider doing the same thing no mater what the size of your property.
  • Consider gifting trees as gifts for family and friends. Trees That Count is a great option.

Although native species might not have evolved to withstand mammalian predators, and the impacts of humans on their environment, the fact remains that they are the best and most perfectly adapted species for NZ’s unique environment.  A humbling thought is that kiwi have been in NZ longer than humans have exisited! Many NZ species have withstood millennia of climate changes in the past and they are still here. We should not write them off as failures simply because they cannot withstand introduced predators and landscape destruction.  We don’t have any more right to exist than our native species do. In fact they have been here in NZ longer than humans so perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that they have more right to exist here than we do.

De-extinction is no substitute for conservation.  At the moment there is no way back. We can’t (yet) bring back what we have lost.  Even if we can one day bring a species back it will always have limitations. It would be better not to find ourselves needing de-extinction in the first place.

We humans want quality of life, we seek happiness. Part of what makes us happy is variety and interest and beauty.  If we allow species to be lost, then the world will be less interesting and permanently dulled.  Unknown possibilities will be lost.  Every time we think we have exhausted the options from nature, we discover another valuable commodity that is derived from a species we could have over looked.  For example spider venom may be able to treat nervous system disorders. 

Our species and our whole way of life depends on the other species we inhabit this earth with. If we don’t value them, then I don’t see how we value ourselves or our own future as a species.