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October 2014

September 2014

Pretty enough to eat: How to grow and use calendula

How to grow and use Calendula flowers. Little eco footprints

I was thrilled to spot the first calendula flower in my garden a few weeks ago. I'm now picking these delightful bright flowers almost daily. Calendula officinalis flowers are edible and medicinal and can be used in a myriad of ways.

Right now (early spring) is the perfect time to sow calendula seeds.

Scatter seeds over bare ground and cover with a thin layer of soil. Little Eco tossed our calendula seeds along the border of a garden bed. Dozens of seedlings emerged despite her haphazard approach.

If you sow seeds now, you will be harvesting flowers in about two months.

This hardy herb will grow almost anywhere, but will do best if planted in a sunny location with fertile well-drained soil. It also grows well in pots.

Calendula is a great companion plant for tomatoes, so sow it near your tomato plants to deter pests.

Regular picking encourages more flowers, so I'm picking flowers almost daily as soon as they fully open.

I've been sprinkling fresh calendula petals into salads and adding them to muffins.

Banana calendula muffins. Calendula flowers are edible and add a pretty touch to muffins. Little eco footprints

A small handful of bright orange petals turns a batch of banana muffins into something extra special. The petals add a mild bitter flavour, a lot of colour, and apparently aid digestion.

Calendula petals can also be used as a frugal substitute for saffron.

Calendula has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties and is a potent skin healer.

A simple way to enjoy these soothing properties is to make a "sun tea". To make calendula sun tea, fill a jar with fresh flowers and cover with water. Seal the jar and place in the sun to infuse for at least five hours, then strain.

Calendula sun tea can be used as a gargle for a sore throat, as a mouth rinse for inflamed gums or ulcers, as a hair rinse for itchy scalps, or as a foot bath for athlete's foot. You can also make a soothing compress for inflamed skin conditions such as scratches, grazes or nappy rash by soaking clean rags in the tea.

Calendula flowers can be dried so this beneficial herb can be enjoyed all year round.

I'm drying calendula flowers on an old fly screen supported between two chairs. You can also dry flowers on a tea towel or newspaper or in a dehydrator. Turn flowers occasionally as they dry. The flowers must be completely dry before being stored, otherwise they will go mouldy. Sufficiently dry flowers will feel fragile and crispy. Dry flowers can be stored in a sealed glass jar in a dark cupboard.

There's an almost endless number of ways to use dried calendula flowers. They can be used to make calendula tea; added to a bath for a soothing soak; or used to make lotions, salves and balms. I'm especially keen to try making calendula lip balm.

Once established, calendula will self-seed, and return year after year. 

Towards the middle of autumn, I'll stop picking my calendula flowers and let them go to seed. I like the idea of this useful flower becoming a weed in my garden.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 29th September 2014.


The Commons Sustenance project - healthy, sustainable & frugal cooking classes

Healthy and sustainable food doesn't have to be expensive – as long as you know how to cook from scratch. After a couple of generations of convenience food, weaning ourselves off processed and packaged food means learning a few new skills.

There’s plenty of food-related workshops helping to restore wholesome cooking skills. Sourdough bread baking, cheese making, food fermentation, and seasonal cooking workshops are relatively common these days.

But many of these workshops are beyond the financial reach of those that could benefit the most. So I was pleased when I heard about The Commons Sustenance project and its efforts to make lessons in wholesome cooking accessible to everyone in Newcastle.

Nissa Phillips, Common Sustenance project coordinator at The Commons Cafe. Little eco footprints

The Commons sustenance project is delivering 10 affordable food and well-being classes at The Commons cafe and community space in Hamilton.

"At only $5 per class, we aim to make healthy food and health education accessible for all," says project coordinator Nissa Phillips. Classes are open to anyone, but particularly target international students, young families and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

"Our classes are all about cooking good food with great people and having lots of fun."

Nissa speaks passionately about helping people realise that healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive. "You can buy a small jar of sauerkraut from a health food store for $13 – or for only a few dollars, you can buy a cabbage and make a huge container of it yourself.

The project is an extension of the work that The Commons is already doing to foster a culture of skill sharing in the Newcastle community. The Commons is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a space and opportunities for people to meet, share skills and work for change. 

Four of the 10 workshops have already been held, on topics such as cheese making and healthy cooking on a shoestring.

Nissa has been particularly pleased with the diversity of participants. "For the recent cooking on a shoestring workshop we had 24 participants from a broad range of backgrounds, including university students, hearing impaired, and single parents."

I really like the sound of the next class – intercultural teatime. Sharing a cup of tea is a wonderful way to bring people together. This Saturday, September 27, Amelia Koh-Butler will lead an exploration of teas and tea ceremonies. Participants will try three different teas: south-eastern tea, Mediterranean mint tea and Anglo-Celt tea. They will also learn how to make scones, summer rolls and life-changing crackers.

Other workshops will cover Mediterranean cooking, food for fussy kids, preserving and seasonal cooking.

Find out more or register here

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 22nd September 2014.


Footloose and free: benefits of barefoot walking

Benefits of barefoot walking. Little eco footprints

A recent frustrating day in front of a computer had me yearning to escape. To connect with nature. To be more grounded. I decided to try something I had been considering for a while – barefoot bushwalking.

I’d heard of the health and well-being benefits of barefoot hiking and barefoot running. I even considered buying a pair of those freaky FiveFingers minimalist sports shoes a few years back. Then I learnt of earthing – coupling your body to the earth’s surface. By the time I started stumbling across images of public barefoot parks in Europe (commonly called Barfuss walks) I could no longer shake the idea of shedding my shoes.

Barefoot bushwalking Little eco footprints

Feeling rebellious, Little Eco and I took off our shoes and headed out for a walk. "Quick, head to the trees before someone sees us," I urged, horrified that we’d be spotted walking around shoeless.

Within moments, we relaxed. Our pace slowed. The location of each step was chosen carefully. We explored textures and temperatures through our feet and giggled as we squished in mud and sought out surfaces that massaged our feet. Little Eco’s childlike enthusiasm was amplified and contagious.

Surprised by how good we felt during and after our barefoot bushwalk, I wanted to find out more about the benefits of walking barefoot.

Barefoot buddhist monk walking. Little eco footprints

A friend of mine, Jason, hasn’t worn shoes since becoming a Buddhist monk in 2010. He has since walked more than 7000 kilometres – barefoot. I figured that he would have a pretty good idea of the benefits of shedding shoes.

Barefoot buddhist monk. Little eco footprints

Jason tells me that the immense benefits of walking barefoot can be nicely summarised into six key points.

1. Walking barefoot increases sensitivity

It is easy to become numb to our surroundings when wearing shoes. "Our feet are like the antennae of ants. Placing shoes on our feet is like placing a sock on the antennae of an ant," said Jason.

2. Walking barefoot increases our connectivity

Walking barefoot reminds us that we are dependent upon the earth for our survival. Jason tells me that "Putting shoes on our feet insulates us from the earth and disconnects us from our impact upon nature and others".

3. Walking barefoot increases our humility

Jason tells me that by shedding his shoes he is deliberately rejecting judgment. He has become more humble. "When barefoot, you can’t really judge anyone else. Humility feels good because it frees us from caring about the judgment of others." 

4. Walking barefoot provides a sense of freedom

Our own home is one place we are usually comfortable to remove our shoes. "By being barefoot beyond our home, our sense of feeling ‘at home’ expands, providing us with a sense of freedom."

5. Walking barefoot improves our health

Walking barefoot is good for our nervous system, vascular system and encourages the flow of life energy. "By walking barefoot we balance and tune these systems and our organs. Walking barefoot also strengthens our posture and balances our emotional sensitivity," said Jason.

6. Walking barefoot teaches us how to overcome addiction

Addictions are about preferring short-term benefits over long-term gains. To overcome addictions we need to prioritise long-term benefits. "Walking barefoot is a great reminder that a little short-term pain can lead to long-term gain," Jason told me.

So, the more I walk barefoot the more sensible, connected, humble, free and healthy I’ll become. That’s reason enough to take off my shoes. Although I suspect I’ll remain a closet barefoot bushwalker for a while yet.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 15th September 2014.


Microgreens: big nutrition for little spaces

Not everyone has the space for a backyard vegie garden. But most people will have the space to grow microgreens. A sunny windowsill or well-lit kitchen bench is all the space you need.

Microgreens are vegetable seedlings that are harvested when only a few weeks old. They are packed with nutrients, can fit into the tiniest of spaces and are quick and easy to grow.

Microgreens are super nutritious

Because microgreens are harvested soon after germination, they contain all the nutrients a new seedling needs to grow. A study of the nutritional content of microgreens found that they are more nutrient dense than their full-grown, mature counterparts.

If I feed Little Eco half a cup of red cabbage microgreens (by hiding them in a smoothie or cheese omelette), she’ll be eating the equivalent of three to 35 cups of red cabbage (depending on which vitamin you consider).

Microgreen growing tips from urban micro farmer Elle Brown

Elle Brown in her backyard microgreen farm. Photo Tallulah Brown-wPhoto: Tallulah Brown

Keen to grow my own microgreens, I asked urban micro farmer Elle Brown, from Newcastle Greens, for some tips.

Elle grows 32 varieties of microgreens in her backyard glasshouse. She delivers fresh microgreens to more than 30 restaurants and cafes up to three times a week.

Elle tells me the secret to growing healthy microgreens is to use good quality seed and soil.

Given that microgreens are eaten so young, it’s important to use "organic or untreated seed", Elle says. Many of the seeds you’ll find at your local nursery or hardware store will have been fumigated or treated with fungicide. If buying from these places, use only seeds labelled as suitable for sprouting or microgreens. Untreated microgreen seeds can be bought online from Greenharvest and Edenseeds.

Microgreen seeds from the pantry. Little eco footprints

Your pantry is also a great source for microgreen seeds. I’ve just been through my pantry and pulled out buckwheat, chickpea, linseed, mung beans, mustard seeds and popcorn. Lentils, oats, barley and chia seeds are also good as microgreens.

To grow healthy microgreens, you need to use a good quality seed raising mix or herb and vegetable mix. Elle makes her own seed raising mix to which she adds rock dust, a natural fertiliser. She’s tried a range of brands and recommends Munash performs particularly well. I’ll be trying various combinations of seed raising mix, coir or coco peat, rock dust and worm castings.

How to grow microgreens

Microgreens can be grown in a range of containers, including recycled strawberry punnets, seedling trays, or plastic take-away containers. Make sure the container is well draining and add drainage holes if needed.

Growing microgreens in upcycled casserole dishes. Little eco footprints.

I'm using old casserole dishes that I've drilled holes in the bottom of

Elle says that "Daikon or Rambo radish are good to start with, as they germinate relatively quickly and aren’t as fussy as some varieties. Broccoli and rocket are also good for beginner growers".

Sowing mustard seeds. Growing microgreens. Little eco footprints

How to grow microgreens. little eco footprints

To sow seeds, evenly distribute a thin layer of seeds on to moist soil. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil. "Keeping your pots moist and warm during the germination period is very important," Elle says.

Microgreens can be harvested with a pair of scissors within only a week or two of sowing.

Start a second crop of microgreens a few days to one week after the first and you’ll have continuous crops ready for harvest.

Those of you in the Newcastle area can buy microgreens direct from Elle by contacting her via her website or instagram.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 7th September 2014.


Worms bring riches: How to make the most of your worm farm

Worm-farming-little eco footprints

A healthy worm farm has so much to offer. Worm wee can be used as a liquid fertiliser. Their castings can be used to enrich your seed-raising mix or as a nutrient-rich soil conditioner. And handfuls of worms can be fed to your chooks as a high-protein treat.

The healthier your farm, the faster your worms will reproduce and the more wee, castings and worms you can harvest.

There are plenty of apparent rules about what not to feed your worms. Some suggest you should avoid citrus peels, onion, cooked food and meat. I tend to ignore the rules and don't stress too much about what ends up in my worm scrap bucket. A healthy worm farm should be able to cope with any kitchen scraps in moderation. If my kitchen scrap bin is extra full of citrus peels, I simply toss its contents into the compost bin instead of the worm farm.

You can speed up how quickly your worms eat their food by chopping, pureeing or freezing your kitchen scraps. I am not that precious and feed my worms scraps as they come. Large pieces are fine, they will simply need to decay a little before the worms can eat them.

Worms love horse and cow manure. I feed my worm farms a bucket of horse manure every fortnight and it helps to keep worm numbers up. When using manure you need to consider the risk of it containing deworming medication. The last thing you want to do is deworm your worm farm. If in doubt, age the manure for a few weeks to allow any deworming medication to break down.

It is important to not overfeed your worms. Feed your worms too much and you will attract pests, cause their bedding to overheat and become too acidic. If the worm farm starts to smell, slow down on the feeding.

Worms like their home to be moist, but not waterlogged. A lack of moisture can kill worms really fast. I ensure their bedding is free draining and flush the farm with water if it looks too dry.

Worms are sensitive to extreme heat or cold. Ensure your worm farm is somewhere warm and sunny in winter and somewhere cool and shady in summer. On very hot days, you can insulate your farm by surrounding it with straw bales or keep it cool by draping it in old towels and keeping them moist.

If you take good care of your worms they will produce plenty of vermicompost - a mix of worm castings (worm poo) and broken down organic matter. 

Vermicompost is commonly called black gold and for good reason. Vermicompost enhances plant growth and productivity and also improves seed germination and seedling growth. Compared to synthetic fertiliser or even regular compost, it has better moisture and nutrient retaining capacity and a higher level of beneficial microbe activity. I use it in my seed-raising mix (at a rate of 10 to 40 per cent of total growth medium) and scatter it around my vegetables.

How you harvest your vermicompost will depend on the type of worm farm you have. To harvest from my laundry tub worm farms I move all the compost to one side and add fresh bedding (straw, dry leaves or aged manure) to the empty side. Most of the worms will move to the fresh bedding and after a few days I can then remove the vermicompost withourt harvesting worms.

I also regularly add handfuls of vermicompost, worms and all, to my chicken tractor to treat the chickens and enrch the soil ready for my next crop of vegetables. 

Worm wee, or the liquid that drains out of the bottom of your worm farm, is an extremely potent liquid fertiliser. It needs to be diluted with water before use, ideally to about the colour of tea.

Wandering around the garden with a watering can of diluted worm wee and selecting plants to fertilise is strangely one of my favourite garden tasks.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 1st September 2014.

I shared how to make a worm farm using an old laundry tub last week