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September 2013
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October 2013

The benefits of living with bugs

A friendly huntsman in our pantry. Household spiders prey upon pests such as cockroaches. Little eco footprints

I don’t mind sharing my home with a few spiders. It’s been years since I’ve used insect spray and I’ve never organised a pest control treatment. My main motivation was avoiding chemicals, but I recently learnt that by avoiding pesticides, I may actually be helping to minimise bugs in my home.

Journalist Amanda Hoh recently interviewed University of Sydney biologist Elizabeth Lowe. Elizabeth is studying the influence of urbanisation on the diversity and abundance of spiders and has found that killing household spiders can result in an increase in other pests. ''If we go out there and kill all the spiders, which are natural predators, then the number of cockroaches and mosquitoes are just going to increase''.

Spiders prey upon numerous household pests such flies, silverfish, termites, cockroaches, mosquitoes and moths.

Instead of killing spiders with pesticides, Elizabeth suggest the best treatment is to let them be.

Nicole Bijlsm, author of ‘Healthy Home Healthy Family’, provides some great tips for controlling creepy crawlies in your home without resorting to pesticides:

1. Get rid of their food. Food odours can attracts pests. Clean up after every meal, store pet food in sealed containers, and keep garbage and compost bins away from the house.

2. Get rid of their shelter. Avoid clutter in and around your home.

3. Create a physical barrier to prevent them getting into your home. Seal all gaps and ensure all windows and doors have fly screens.

There’s also a suite of natural pest control options. For example, ants can be deterred by sprinkling pepper, cinnamon or turmeric powder along their trail. I’ve also found ants usually disappear of their own accord after I clean up whatever food they were interested in (usually a jar of honey that wasn’t closed properly). Cockroaches can be controlled by using sticky traps and the good old plastic fly swat is perfect for fly control.

Originally published in my Newcastle Herald column 'Less is More' 26th October 2013.

Are you happy to embrace the benefits of living with bugs - or do you prefer a bug free home? 

The key to living 'the good life'

Little eco thinks the 'good life' is dancing through a paddock in a pink tutu. Little eco footprints

When I’ve been fortunate to witness a falling star I’ve usually made a wish related to happiness. If these wishes are anything to go by, I clearly thought that being happy was the key to living a good life. But apparently I was on the wrong track – and am more likely to find a good life in helping others.

In 'The good life: What makes life worth living?' social researcher and psychologist Hugh Mackay convincingly argues that a good life is not measured by happiness, security, wealth, status, or achievement. A good life is determined by our willingness to connect with those around us.

A good life is one that recognises, respects and responds to the needs of others.

The book has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I’ve realised that although I volunteer occasionally – there’s definitely room for improvement.

It seems I’m not the only parent using family commitments as an excuse for not contributing more to my community. Volunteering rates in Australia are highest in women over 45 and men over 55.

Mackay suggests that being a parent of a young child makes it even more important to help others.

“What we do need, as children, is for someone to nurture our altruism, to teach us from an early age to take other people’s rights, needs and wellbeing into account. We need to be taught from the very beginning how to cooperate rather than compete.” “..our most civilising impulses need to be encouraged when we’re young”.

I’ll make more of an effort to help others from now on, particularly as a family. We recently joined our local Landcare group and I’d like to help out more at our local school.

Do Something Near You

Do Something! is an organisation that helps Australians to create social and environmental change. Their Do Something Near You community directory and volunteer portal is a great tool for finding ways to help in our own neighbourhood.

I typed in our post code and received a long list of volunteer opportunities. High on my wish list are Girl Guides and Country Women’s Association.

The Do Something Near You website almost feels like being able to shop online for a good life. Now that’s a type of shopping I could learn to love.

Originally published in my Newcastle Herald column 'Less is More' 19th October 2013.

Slowing down and embracing unstructured play

Natural environments are ideal for imaginative creative play. Little eco footprints

As the recent school holidays drew near, I started planning activities and outings – but then I stopped. I realised that what Little Eco needed most was free time. She’s only in her first year of school – but already I feel that the business that accompanies school and after-school activities leaves little time for play. I kept organised activities to a minimum and watched as she remembered how to play.

Unstructured play, the kind of play that happens without adult guidance, is worth encouraging. Research has shown that unstructured play helps children develop their creativity, imagination, and physical and emotional strength.

Making a mud pie picnic 2. Little eco footprints

Unstructured play among children is particularly valuable for teaching them how to share, negotiate, communicate and resolve conflicts. I invited her friends over to play and sat back and watched the children create their own world – usually involving a good dose of mud.

Mud pie birthdy cake. Little eco footprints

Natural environments are particularly good for unstructured play. Natural objects such as sticks, stones, dirt, leaves, mud and water lend themselves to exploration and creation and can be used in a multitude of ways. Mud pie picnics and fairy gardens made of sticks and flowers are common at our place.

I particularly love that nature provides a place seemingly separate from the adult world. Natural spaces can give children a much-needed sense of freedom - even if only in the backyard within the gaze of mum. It may only be a tree, a puddle, or a gap under a shrub to us, but to a child it’s their own secret space, somewhere where they rule – if only for just a moment.

Originally published in my Newcastle Herald column 'Less is More' 12th October 2013.

Three Sisters companion planting

My vegetable garden is far from neat. I closely inter-plant different types of plants and steer clear of neat rows of single varieties. I’m a fan of companion planting and grow plants together that will assist each other in some way. My latest attempt at companion planting has been growing corn, beans and squash together – a trio known as the ‘Three Sisters’.

A Three Sisters garden thriving at Purple Pear Farm. Photo Mark Brown.

A Three Sisters garden thriving at Purple Pear Farm. Photo Mark Brown. (My Three Sisters are still only teeny seedlings)

The Three Sisters is a traditional Native American mixed-cropping method that has been practiced for centuries. The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb. The beans support the corn and increase the availability of nitrogen, and the squash shades the ground – deterring weeds and maintaining soil moisture.

Interestingly, the Three Sisters also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, and the squash provides vitamins.

Success with a Three Sisters garden requires careful attention to timing, varieties and spacing – otherwise you may end up with a snarl of vines overwhelming your corn that is impossible to harvest from.

Unfortunately, I learnt of the importance of timing only after I planted all three sisters at once. It’s wise to give the corn a little head start, planting it first. Add plenty of compost or aged manure, as corn is a heavy feeder and the nitrogen from the beans will not be available until the following crop. As corn is wind pollinated it needs to be planted in a block rather than narrow rows to ensure adequate pollination. Once the corn is around 15 cm tall, interplant with the beans and squash.

For the bean sister, select climbing or pole beans rather than bush or dwarf beans. Purple or yellow beans are easier to spot in among the corn. Another option is to use a shelling bean that can be left to dry on the plant. I planted borlotti beans, which I’ll be able to harvest fresh, and also leave to dry on the plant once I tire of trying to harvest from amongst the corn.

For the squash sister options include squash, pumpkin or zucchini. Apparently, a squash or pumpkin variety with trailing vines rather than a compact bush is best, but I went with zucchini – making sure to plant it on the edges so that I can reach it for easy harvesting.

I’m looking forward to seeing how my Three Sisters get along. I’m assuming my first attempt is going to be less than ideal, but I’m looking forward to learning from this first attempt and improving on it next year.

Originally published in my Newcastle Herald column 'Less is More' 5th October 2013.

Found it through the grapevine

1. Spike the loan pony

The environmental and financial benefits of sharing and hand-me-downs are widely recognised. Most of us know that when we borrow or favour pre-loved we minimise waste and reduce resource use. But a major hurdle in the use of second-hand items is being able to find what we need, when we need it.

I have found one of the most effective ways to find what you want without resorting to buying new is to let your friends and family know what you are searching for. It’s highly likely that someone will have what you need sitting unused and unloved in their garage or a spare room, or in our case, a paddock.

2. Spike the loan pony

We recently welcomed Spike the loan pony to our little farm. Little Eco has long wanted a pony, but we are not willing to buy her one until we are certain that she’ll give it the care and attention required. I started telling friends that we were searching for a pony to loan. Eventually a friend noticed a post on facebook about a pony looking for a temporary home.

3. Spike the loan pony

Spikes owners don’t have the space or time for him at the moment, but love him so much that they can’t bear to sell him. He’s come to live with us for a year or so. It’s a win-win situation that would not have happened had I not told friends of our search.

Another friend has challenged herself to furnish her home using only pre-loved content. She created a list of things she is seeking and circulated it to friends, family and colleagues. The response has been positive. “People have given me things like their grandma's pots and pans that they didn't use, but didn't want to throw out. As an added bonus, I’m forging new friendships with people who are dropping stuff off for me and sharing stories”.

For me, what I love most about sharing and passing on is that it it’s a nice way to support each other and encourage a sense of community and connection. I love that these exchanges are happening without the transfer of money. Unused things are moving onto a new home where they can be cherished and enjoyed. 

Originally published in my Newcastle Herald column 'Less is More' 28th September 2013.