What colour green am I?

I recently read Kari McGregor’s ‘Shades of Green’ series of articles, which got me thinking – I’ve always thought of myself as being ‘green’, but what shade am I?

In Part 1 of the series, Kari outlines 4 shades of the green movement:

Bright greenBright Green – Optimistic about the ability of technology such as wind and solar power to save us, that human innovation, ingenuity, and market forces will prevail and dig us out of the hole we seem to be falling ever deeper into. Bright green is quite mainstream and prominent within the environmental movement.

Lite green

Lite Green – This category seems to encompass many people today, and is characterised by ‘eco-consumerism’, the idea that if we all make ethical, green choices then this will push the markets towards more eco-friendly practices.

Deep greenDeep Green – A more radical bunch, deep greens put the environment first and foremost. Their activities are probably what many people think environmentalists do – resistance, blockades, activities designed to undermine the system.

Dark green

Dark Green – Sounds sinister eh? Dark greens have recognised that there is a limit to resources, energy supplies and economic growth, and seek to escape from the system, becoming self sufficient, building resilient communities and preparing in other ways for the shock of global collapse.

So with these seemingly different categories or approaches to a ‘green’ lifestyle, where do I fit in?

As a scientist I do recognise human ingenuity and innovation and believe that there are scientific solutions that can help, although I acknowledge that science does not provide the whole solution in itself. Going cold turkey on easily available energy is not going to be appealing for much of society and this barrier currently prevents us from letting go of fossil fuels. Renewable energy technologies do have the power (literally!) to allow us to wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels, but presently come with their own drawbacks, including pollution and use of natural resources. So am I in the Bright green camp? Well partially….at least for now I believe technology has a role to play, but needs to be in combination with other behavioural and cultural changes to reduce our overall consumption and energy use.

MoviIMG_2316ng on…We buy organic veggies, have solar panels on our house, and are trying to reduce our plastic use – often going out of our way to try to buy ‘eco’ alternatives. I guess that’s a big tick for the Lite green box! Lite green is the easy option and for many people a good place to start, it requires little personal sacrifice and the rewards and ‘feel good’ factor are almost immediate (thinking of the ‘smug’ episode of South Park relating to Prius drivers!). But as Kari points out, green consumption is still consumption and the spectre of peak economic growth requires much more than simply switching brands, but a drastic reduction in consumption overall. We  are not yet self sufficient, so I try to be as green as possible in the purchases I do make as I feel that every little counts, whist always questioning whether we really do need to buy the items we covet.

Recently I have become interested to learn more about the limits to growth and the idea of a de-growth economy. Dark green concepts such as downshifting and voluntary simplicity are appealing ideas for me, although I have yet to implement them to the extent that some people have. I love the idea that we can rebuild stronger and more resilient communities and re-learn things that most people have long forgotten how to do. So whilst I’m not currently very Dark green, I do stand with a foot in this camp, and am moving more in this direction in baby steps.

Ah now, the Deep greens. Currently I don’t think of myself as deep green in my actions although I agree that this approach is needed and I am often moved by the ability of sheer people power to achieve results. Despite my lack of action in this area I do identify with the philosophy. As a biologist I dislike the anthropocentric view that humans are in some way different from (or superior to) other forms of life. Humans are just animals like any other, and we need to re-learn how we fit into the complex web of life that makes up our wonderful home instead of holding the view that we must control or exploit nature. So although outwardly I may not appear to be a Deep Green environmental activist, at heart I am (more than) a little, I just haven’t been brave enough to stick my neck out and show it yet!

So, what shade am I? Probably a mixture of different shades to greater or lesser extent depending on my mood and circumstance, maybe something like this? (Like them? They’re our own Green Tiger tomatoes, fresh from the garden)

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Initially I felt confused and blamed myself for being unfocused, why could I not just focus on one aspect and throw myself into that? But having mulled it over I think it’s OK to identify with more than one shade and to put efforts into different activities working towards the same goal, kind of like not putting all your eggs in one basket I guess.

And does it matter? In the second and third parts of the ‘shades of green’ series, Kari goes on to argue that whilst each of the different shades has it’s good and bad points, there is no ‘wrong’ shade. Each group has a different focus and contribution to make to the environmental movements and the important thing is that people who identify with different ‘camps’ should continue to communicate well with people of other shades and find common ground. Collaboration is one of humanity’s great strengths – we just need to remember that, move away from the ‘us vs. them’ narrative and work together to reach our shared goals and preserve a planet worth living on.

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‘Viva la Ferment Fever!’ Episode 1  

Sometimes you have more cabbages that you know what to do with, yet a month later they’re all gone and there’s a ‘hungry gap’ with no or very little veggies ready to eat. With this in mind, I’ve been looking into ways to preserve veggies to spread out the food we are growing more evenly through the year. Sure we could just freeze things, but I wanted to try something a bit more exciting that just whacking them in the freezer!

Last weekend I went along to the “Viva la Ferment Fever” workshop run by Very Edible Gardens (VEG) here in Melbourne , which promised to cover the ins an outs of making sauerkraut and kimchi (fermented vegetables), yoghurt and kefir (fermented milk or non-dairy milk products). The workshop was jam-packed from start to finish, so I will talk here just about the sauerkraut and kimchi, then will talk a bit about yoghurt and kefir in my next post – information overload!

The workshop was very intimate with just a small group, which was great as we could all gather easily around the kitchen table and get stuck in, everyone had a chance to get some proper experience and learn how to make the veggie ferments. With such a small group it had a very laid back atmosphere and was easy for everyone to ask questions (even for shy people like me!).

We started by learning a bit about how lacto-fermentation works. The idea is to submerge the vegetables in (slightly salted) water, effectively sealing them off to prevent organisms from the air getting into contact with the vegetables. As well as preventing contamination and spoilage from outside organisms, being immersed in water also creates the ideal anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions for the natural organisms that normally lie dormant on the surface of the vegetables to start growing – providing the powerhouse behind the fermentation process.

The word Sauerkraut literally means “sour cabbage”. Sounds delicious doesn’t it? It is actually quite tasty, it has a sour and tangy flavour that goes really well as a side dish with other foods. It is also really simple to make. The main ingredient is cabbage (the clue’s in the name…), we used a red cabbage which looked great with its rich purple colour. In addition to the salt, other seasonings such as chopped dill or caraway seeds can also be added. – we added dill. Kimchi originates from Asian cuisine and often contains other vegetables (we used Chinese/wombok cabbage, daikon radish, leeks and carrots), along with garlic, ginger and red chilli.

IMG_2311We started by chopping the vegetables into fine strips, putting some into a wide bowl and adding a small amount of salt – maybe ¼ teaspoon, just enough to taste. Carey explained that although you can do the fermentation without, adding salt helps to draw water out of the vegetables. By gently pounding the vegetables with the bottom of a glass bottle (carefully!) or by squashing the more tender wombok cabbage gently with our hands, we can help to break up the cell structure of the veg slightly to allow some of the water to come out. The vegetables don’t need to be beaten to a pulp, as you still want them to be a bit crunchy and maintain their shape after fermentation.

We then packed a layer abo2015-02-28 11.26.13ut 5cm thick into the bottom of a large jar, and used the vegetable compression device (aka bottle of balsamic vinegar) to squash the vegetables down and pack them tightly into the bottom of the jar. The rest of the veg was packed in layer by layer, squashing each one down as we went. Interestingly, we could see the water starting to come out of the cabbage as it was packed into the jar, so that by the time it was full there was almost enough liquid to cover the veg when it was weighed down with the bottle.

We each took some samples home so we could see how the fermentation went. I couldn’t find any nice neat little jars that would fit inside the jars to squash down the cabbage, so had to use beer bottles filled with water! I popped a little bit of cling film over the top to prevent the cats from sticking their noses in and also to stop the water in the beer bottles from evaporating or spilling.

To begin with there wasn’t really much water, especially in the red cabbage sauerkraut, and I was worried it might start to spoil. But I followed Carey’s instructions and left it with the beer bottle weighing it down, and the next day there was more water. Within a day or two the cabbage was completely covered!

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Kimchi (left) and Sauerkraut (right) after about 2 days of fermentation

The fermentation would take a week or two, but Carey advised that we should try some every couple of days to see how the flavours changed and see how we liked it. Once it had got to the point at which we felt the flavour was right, we could put it in the fridge to stop or slow down the fermentation.

I tried each of our ferments after a couple of days. The kimchi was pretty good, you could really taste the ginger and chilli. The sauerkraut tasted quite cabbage-y! Surprising, that.

Sauerkraut after about 10 days

Sauerkraut after about 10 days (sorry no pic of Kimchi as it’s almost all been eaten!)

I’ve tried them a couple of times since and the sauerkraut is pretty good now, it tastes a lot less of just cabbage and is a bit more sour and interesting. A great joint effort from all of us at the workshop – I’m interested to see how it goes making it from scratch on my own!

Overall it was definitely a worthwhile use of a Saturday morning, and I will be making more and trying out some of the other recipes for sure. A big thanks to Carey and Cassie at VEG for making it such a great workshop, and watch this space for Episode 2 – Adventures in fermented (non)dairy! 

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Starting our veggie garden

When we moved in, part of the back garden had been separated off and was paved with bricks. I think it was used as a basketball area and also had the washing line in. Whilst this was probably useful if you have family members who like to shoot hoops or like to have a dedicated area to hang your washing, I felt that the view of a bland brick area from the living room window was a bit boring and the large brick area got very hot in the Melbourne sun. I figured we could put that space to much better use, and being fairly level and fenced off from the local rabbit population made it perfect for our new veggie garden.

Our original paved garden area

Our original paved garden area

So one Sunday afternoon I was feeling particularly optimistic in my abilities to get things done on the tail end of the weekend, and decided to take up the bricks. Armed with our trusty crowbar and a masonry chisel thing (apparently it’s called a “cold chisel”) I started trying to prise up the bricks. Thankfully, the bricks were just bedded down on a layer of sand and once I had made a gap it was easy to pull up adjacent bricks. Soon I had cleared an area big enough to install a raised bed 1.8 x 1m and felt very pleased with my achievements.

When choosing a material to make the beds out of, we had a few things to consider. First off, we’re in a high termite area and so the material really had to be termite resistant. Secondly, our location on the urban fringe of Melbourne and backing onto grassland with powerlines means that we’re also in a higher fire risk area, and although our risk isn’t as high as those properties fully buried in the bush, we wanted to minimise the amount of flammable timber near the house. And finally, we wanted to use a material that was as eco-friendly as possible.

After some research we settled on eWood planks (www.ewood.com.au), which ticked a lot of our boxes. They are made in Australia, from recycled plastics including printer cartridges, computers, TVs and car parts. They are termite resistant, need no painting or sealing and are UV stabilised to withstand the harsh Australian climate. Best of all, they were available from our local Mitre10 who delivered them really quickly, almost before we had got home from the shop!

We ordered enough planks to make a few beds, and cut them to size – be warned, like many “composite” or plastic woods, they are hard to cut and will blunt tools!

We ordered some soil from a local supplier to top up the beds, and chose a blend of soils designed for veggie beds. Ideally I would prefer to work with the soil we have and aim to improve it through digging in compost etc. but the soil is so heavy and hard to deal with that we wouldn’t have been able to grow much in it so we decided to short-cut a bit by mixing in some better soil with more organic matter to get things started, then we will continue to improve it over the coming seasons through composting and mulching.

Hard at work digging our heavy clay soil!

Hard at work digging our heavy clay soil!

As soon as the first beds were finished, I started planting, putting in some potatoes (pink fir apple, pink eye and purple congo) broad beans and sweetcorn plants. We have since added in more beds, and have planted shallots, tomatoes, chillies, swiss chard (silverbeet) and courgettes (sorry… zucchini!). 

Obviously the jungle crew had to venture into the new veggie area to check it out – they wasted no time in jumping in amongst the silverbeet and munching away!

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Overall I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved in our first year of having a proper veggie garden in Australia. We haven’t managed to grow as much as we would have liked to, the broad beans and snow peas didn’t take off and in fact the broad beans succumbed to a leaf curl virus and had to be discarded. The sweetcorn has produced 2 tiny cobs but each plant has stopped at about 40-50cm tall so I don’t they’ve not done as well I had hoped. But the courgettes, potatoes and swiss chard/silverbeet have been great. The chillies haven’t cropped all that heavily, the had some hurdles to overcome in the fact that the chickens stripped all the leaves they could reach off each plant! Still, they have recovered reasonably well and continued to flower, so we’re still getting some chillies, which is good.

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I’m still learning about the need to water – I think I‘m watering enough but seem to constantly underestimate the heat from the sun here and I think this has affected some of our yields. Luckily the previous owners installed an irrigation system connected to the rainwater tanks, so we’ve modified this to re-route the pipes around the veggie beds, now each bed is irrigated with a dripper hose that seeps water into the soil. After we installed our beds I read about wicking beds and how much water they can save – typical that I found it after we had already planted ours! We still have a couple more beds to put in, so I might try to make some wicking beds for those, we’ll see how that goes.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased– now I’m planning my autumn plantings to try to get some things growing over winter. It’s been great watching things grow over summer, and has been very satisfying to cook and share meals that we’ve made from our own produce – and eggs of course!

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…We’ve got fun n’ games

Indeed we do – in the form of broody chickens that insist on sitting in their nestboxes all day waiting for imaginary babies to hatch!

We have a little flock of 5 chickens, consisting of two pekins (Rosie and Jessica Fletcher) and 3 silkies (Miss Fisher, Dot and Joyce). Both breeds are old Asian breeds and unlike commercial breeds such as ISA browns that have been bred for maximum egg production, pekins and silkies produce fewer eggs and well known for their broody tendencies and for being good mothers. We knew what we were in for when choosing those breeds, but decided we’d rather go for more traditional breeds than the commercial ‘egg-laying machines’ that often only have short lifespans of 2-3 years and have been designed to lay eggs every single day all year round, often at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. Sure our chickens lay fewer eggs, supposedly laying less than 100 per year each (although I’ve not counted), but when they aren’t broody we get 4-5 eggs per day over the spring and summer months – we often give them away at work as we can’t eat them all!

However after an uneventful winter whilst the girls took a break from laying, we’ve spent most of the summer with at least one of them broody, and only a few rare days when all 5 are happily out and about foraging in the bushes.

Well this week we hit a new record, 3 broodies at once – 60% of our flock! This became problematic as we only have 2 nestboxes, so Joyce and Dot have decided to cosy up and share. This is cute, but with temperatures this weekend over 36 degrees, cuddling up in a big fluffy pile is not great for keeping cool!

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Dot (left) and Joyce (right) cuddled up in the nestbox

The first signs that ours are about to go broody include making a deep ‘bok-bok’ noise that is consistent and different from their normal chatter, and hanging around by their house for a day or two instead of joining the others foraging. When our pekin Rosie went broody for the first time a few weeks ago, she plucked all the feathers from her chest and tummy so had a huge bald patch. This patch is called a ‘brood patch’ and serves to increase contact between the skin and the eggs during incubation to keep the eggs warm.

Their maternal instinct is admirably strong, whilst broody they sit all day and night, coming out only occasionally (and often under protest!) to eat, drink, poop and maybe have a quick dust bath, then it’s back on duty in the nextbox. They also become enraged when approached by other chickens or people – fluffing up their feathers, spreading their wings and screeching – which is pretty funny, Jessica Fletcher in particular is funny as she looks like a little angry puffball!

Unfortunately their dedication will go unrewarded, at least for now. We don’t have a rooster – we are technically allowed one according to our local council rules, but only if our neighbours agree, but we haven’t yet ventured along that path.

The funny thing is that they’re not even sitting on anything, just an empty nest. They will also sit on other chickens eggs, pebbles or even golf balls! The amount of time they will sit depends on their own individual characters, Miss Fisher is relatively easy to break out of the broody cycle and doesn’t tend to sit for too long, whereas Jessica Fletcher is very determined and committed, goes broody at the drop of a hat and is very hard to snap out of it. This worries me as she loses weight from not eating enough whilst she’s broody, so it’s important for us to not let her sit for too long.

There are various old wives tales and anecdotes about how to get a broody hen to snap out of it, some of which I wouldn’t want to try. Our preferred method is to put them in the ‘sin bin’, a large wire-framed dog cage containing just food and water, with a wire bottom (and no bedding) to prevent them from nesting. Propping it up on bricks allows air flow underneath, this apparently helps to cool their bellies, which helps to snap them out of their broodiness quicker.

We find that the key is to keep the broody hen in there for a few days, especially at night. We let her out for a few minutes once or twice a day to stretch their legs, but at the first sign they’re heading to the nestbox we pop them back in the sin bin. We make sure that the sin bin is located in the main run with the others so they’re not on their own (which stresses them), but they do have to sleep out there at night too to really make a difference we find – it’s important to make sure they’re nice and secure though, in case of foxes or other predators, we usually have the sin bin inside their main run which is locked.

Now this may sound cruel, and I did feel bad at first leaving them in there, but it really is for their own good in the long run as being broody for a long period depletes their natural reserves and puts their health at risk so if they’re not going to have an chicks then it’s much kinder to try to snap them out of it with as little fuss as possible rather then leave them to brood with no reward of cute cheepy chicks at the end. We make sure they have everything they need, including shelter from bad weather, shade from the hot sun and will move them into a cooler place on really hot days so they’re not in danger from the heat.

It normally takes anything from 2 days to a week or so for them to get back to normal, but I have heard of people who have had to keep their chooks in their for weeks! So the fun and games begin again – first cab off the rank will probably be Jessica Fletcher, as she goes broody most often and so is a bit light due to prolonged broody periods when she’s not eating properly. Every time she stops being broody I promise her that if she puts some weight on then next time she can have some fertile eggs to sit on, but then she goes broody again only a week later and she’s back in the sin bin again! We’ll get her some one day, she deserves it after demonstrating such commitment to her cause don’t you agree?

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Welcome to the jungle…

I guess I should start with some kind of welcome message and explain why I’m here and what I’m doing…. So, er… welcome! My name is Sam and I work as a research scientist in Melbourne, Australia (although I am originally from the UK).

I have long been fairly environmentally conscious, growing veggies, recycling and refusing to simply throw things away (some might call it hoarding…), but amid growing climate change and other environmental concerns, these small measures seem somehow not enough to make much of a difference. So I’ve decided to push a bit further, to try to take bigger steps to living a more sustainable life, and to document my experiments, successes and failures here. True to my background in science, I hope to include at least some scientific rationale, explanation or logic to the things I am trying to do, but we’ll see how that goes.

Firstly to address the elephant (or rather fowl) in the room – why jungle chickens? Well… as I will most likely discuss in an upcoming post, we recently moved from metropolitan Melbourne out to a more rural area on the ’urban fringe’, and with our new home we (well mainly me!) also decided to get some chickens. I’m a lifelong animal lover, and want our chooks to have the best possible life with lots of time outside their coop to forage and doing their chicken thing. I’ve noticed that in particular, they seem to enjoy going underneath the bushes, and scratching around amongst the undergrowth to unearth bugs and worms to eat (or eating the undergrowth itself!). Chickens originated in Asia and would have lived their lives in the jungle areas, foraging on the forest floor.

I like to imagine that when they’re skulking around in the bushes like small feathery ninjas hunting down and digging for food, that they’re happy to be returning in some way to their jungle chicken roots. And definitely far away from the artificial, unnatural and unsustainable lives of many chickens raised in modern intensive farming environments.

Time spent watching ‘chicken TV’ in our garden got me to thinking about how I long to do the ‘chicken’ thing – perhaps not to scratch around in the dirt and poop all over the garden, but to live a more sustainable, less artificial and overall simpler life. I don’t know if I’m the first person to make poultry-inspired lifestyle changes, but I’m excited to be embarking on the jungle chickens path wherever it may lead!

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