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November 2014

‘Tis the season to be creative

Creative countdown to christmas. Owls made from toilet rolls. little eco footprints

The festive season has evolved into a celebration of consumerism.

Christmas day will see many children opening an overwhelming number of gifts. Excessive gift-giving comes at a cost - for our hip-pockets, the environment, and our children. I am sure many children would prefer more of our presence, rather than more presents.

When it comes to gift-giving, less is more.

This Christmas we’ll continue our tradition of giving our daughter only two gifts - one from us and one from Santa. Knowing she only gets two gifts, she slowly and thoughtfully writes her wish list and truly values what she receives. Rather than depriving her, I believe that we are helping her appreciate what she has and teaching her the value of wanting less. I hope that by wanting less, she will always feel like her desires are within reach.

Our household is trying to fight against the commercialisation of Christmas and downplay the tradition of gift-giving - but without being scrooges. 

One solution is to be more generous with our presence, rather than our presents. We've embraced traditions that help us connect instead of consume. 

New traditions fill the gap left when we take away the emphasis on gift-giving.

My favourite festive season tradition is our creative countdown to Christmas.

Counting down the days to Christmas using our home made advent calendar made from rocks 2. Little eco footprints

We make an advent calendar from natural materials. Last year we used stones and in earlier years we’ve used fallen leaves.

Counting down the days to Christmas using our home made advent calendar made from rocks. Little eco footprints

Each stone or leaf is numbered and corresponds to a chosen creative activity. 

Creative countdown to christmas. corn husk owls. little eco footprints

We choose quick nature play or craft activities that we can do as a family. For example, last year together we created nature crowns, corn husk owls, owls from toilet rolls, and a native bee hotel from recycled materials.

Creative countdown to christmas. native bee hotel. little eco footprints

We steer clear from activities that require us to buy anything and instead use natural and recycled materials. We make use of what we already have.

This year Little Eco asked that the activities have a wild craft theme. That’s my girl! So we’ll be learning how to build a shelter, weave a basket, navigate, and bandage a snake bite.

Each year, at the start of our creative countdown, I struggle to set aside the time to create.

But I persist. I make it a priority. I set aside an hour each afternoon for us to create together. We chat, connect and create. We focus more on the process than the outcome and have a lot of fun.

I notice the effect of setting aside time to create together almost immediately. Little Eco stops asking for TV and we all become more confident in our creativity.

We roll into Christmas more connected and creative.

Do you want to give less this Christmas? 

I'm guessing I'm not the only person contemplating giving less this Christmas. Be it for environmental, wellbeing or financial reasons.

Be creative - find or create a new tradition.

Think about what you truly enjoy doing as a family – and do more of that.

It’s easy to buy more presents – making time to give presence is more challenging – but so much more valuable.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 24th November 2014.

I've enjoyed a few other posts on a similar theme in the last few days. Brydie shared her Gift Tree on the Milkwood blog and I especially love the Permaculture Advent-ure the Owlets are embarking on

Wishing you a creative (rather than consuming) festive season. 


How to make water kefir: a healthy fizzy fermented drink

How to make water kefir. Recipe and tips. Little eco footprints

I have become obsessed with fermented foods. Sourdough bread, sauerkraut, yoghurt, milk kefir and water kefir have all become part of my daily diet. If I were to buy these fermented foods from a health food store, I’d be spending a small fortune on my habit. Thankfully, fermented foods are easy to make at home.

My current favourite ferment is water kefir.

Water kefir is a naturally fizzy fermented drink laden with probiotics.

It is bubbly and refreshing like soft drink, but without the artificial ingredients and with far less sugar. The beneficial bacteria and yeast are an added bonus. 

You can buy water kefir from many heath food and organic stores. Here in Newcastle we’re fortunate to have it made locally by a small family business. Imbibe Water Kefir is delicious, but at $12.95 for a bottle it’s a drink I reserve for special occasions.

You can make your own water kefir at home for only a few cents per litre.

Water kefir grains. Little eco footprints

You’ll need some water kefir grains.

Despite their name, water kefir grains aren’t actually ‘grains’. They are small translucent bundles of yeast and bacteria living symbiotically.

You can buy water kefir grains online, but I think cultures are best shared.

Find someone who makes water kefir. Perhaps a friend of a friend. And ask for some grains and culturing tips.

I like the idea of cultures being used to culture community.

For me, sharing my excess grains is part of the fun of making kefir. A friend gifted me some grains and I have since passed on grains to others. Kefir grains have been shared like this across the globe for hundreds of years.

There are many stories about the origin of water kefir. One story suggests it originated in Mexico, where water kefir grains were collected from a prickly pear cactus. Another, and my favourite, suggests it originated in Tibet where monks gifted some grains to Mother Theresa to improve the health of India’s poor. There was a condition on the gift, that it must never be sold. It should to be shared for free instead.

Whatever the origin of water kefir, I love that my bottles of beneficial yeast and bacteria are decedents of microorganisms that have been drunk and shared for hundreds of years.

How to make water kefir 

Step 1: Make a sugar solution

How to make water kefir. Step 1 make sugar solution. Little eco footprints.

To a large two litre glass jar add: 

1/2 cup of raw sugar
1/4 teaspoon of coarsely crushed sterilised egg shells
1/4 teaspoon of bicarb soda (baking soda)
1 teaspoon of molasses (optional)

Water kefir needs a solution rich in minerals to thrive. The egg shells, bicarb soda and molasses provide the minerals the kefir grains need to thrive. Molasses does have a distinctive taste that not everyone in my household likes, so I don't always include it. In the picture above, the middle jar contains molasses. 

How to make water kefir. Adding egg shells increases mineral availability. Little eco footprints

To make sterilised egg shells, I wash the shells as I use them and collect them in a bowl. I then place the bowl in the oven at 110 degrees celsius for 10+ minutes. Cool, crush, and store in a jar. 

Add one cup of boiling water to the jar. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Add 7 cups of water.

The type of water you use will influence the health of your kefir. Spring water is ideal, rainwater is good, and tap water is fine, as long as you evaporate off the chlorine first. Chlorine can damage the kefir grains. The chlorine can be evaporated off by letting the water sit overnight before using. 

Step 2: First ferment 

How to make water kefir. Kefir grains. Little eco footprints.

How to make water kefir. Water kefir grains in sugar solution. Little eco footprints.

Add one cup of kefir grains to the jar of sugar solution. 

Put a lid on the jar or cover with a cloth. Leave to ferment at room temperature for 24-48 hours. 

The longer you ferment, the lower the sugar content of your final drink, thanks to the appetite of the yeast and bacteria.

Be aware, there's apparently a risk of jars exploding under the pressure of carbonation (a product of the fermentation process). If you are new to making water kefir and are not sure how active your grains will be, I suggest covering your jar with a cloth rather than a tightly closed lid. I like bubbles, so screw my lids on tight. 

Step 3. Strain grains from sugar solution. 

How to make water kefir. Straining grains. Little eco footprints.

After one to two days, strain grains from the sugar solution. 

If your kefir grains are happy, they will multiply each batch – leaving you with more than enough to share. I've also been feeding excess grains to our dogs and chickens. 

Note: Once you get to your second batch you will do this step first so that you have grains for the next batch. i.e. when you are ready to make your second batch you will do step 3 (strain grains) first, then step 1 (make sugar solution), then step 2 (first ferment), then step 4 (second ferment). 

Step 4. Second ferment. 

How to make water kefir. Bottling ready for second ferment. Little eco footprints.

How to make water kefir. Second ferment with apple and cinnamon. Little eco footprints.

The second ferment is where the fizz is enhanced and extra flavours are added.

Place your strained water kefir into sealable bottles, add fruit or juice to flavour, seal lid and turn bottle a few times to mix. Leave to ferment at room temperature for another day.

Almost any fruit or fruit juice can be used to flavour water kefir.

Here's a few of my favourite flavours so far. To a one litre bottle I add the following: 

  • Ginger and lime: a teaspoon of ground ginger and a couple of slices of lime
  • Lemon: the juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Peach: the flesh of one peach chopped
  • Mango: I use a jar rather than a bottle and add an entire mango seed still covered in flesh
  • Apple and cinnamon (shown above): 1/4 apple chopped + 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon. 

Experiment with your favourite seasonal fruits. I'm looking forward to grape and bluberry season. 

Be careful when opening the bottle after the second ferment as it may be supper fizzy and overflow. There's also apparently a risk of bottles exploding under the pressure of carbonation. When I'm second fermenting with a super sweet fruit like mango, I leave more space at the top of the bottles and also open the lid every now and then to release pressure. One day I'd like to collect some swing-top style brewing bottles with rubber seals as they expand under pressure. 

Place in the fridge to chill before serving.


Water kefir grains need to be fed a fresh sugar solution every 48 hours or they will starve. If you want a break you can store the grains in a sugar solution in the fridge. Replace the sugar solution once a week. For longer-term storage you can dehydrate the grains and store in the fridge for six months. 

Raising chickens - from egg to egg laying

Zippy the Australorp hen at 6 months old. Little eco footprints.

Our young Australorp hens have started to lay. We placed a dozen fertilised eggs in an incubator back in May, and the girls have just laid their first eggs. From egg to egg took six months. I appreciate the humble egg more than ever.

Seven eggs hatched. Three girls and four boys. The boys must have sensed they were destined for the stock pot. We lost one to wry neck – a condition that caused his neck to twist. Another jumped out of the brooder, where he encountered our two dogs.

Chickens raised without a mother hen need to be kept warm for their first few weeks. Home-made brooders are easy to make. I made two.

Chicken brooder in a plastic tub. DIY. Little eco footprints

Our chickens spent their first week in a small brooder made out of a plastic tub lined with wood shavings.

Chicken brooder made from an old cot. DIY. Little eco footprints.

Their second, more spacious brooder was made out of an old timber cot. I lined the base and sides with cardboard and made a roof out of chicken wire.

The brooders were heated by a heat lamp, hung above. The temperature was adjusted by raising or lowering the lamp. Infrared bulbs (available from pet shops) are ideal, although they are relatively expensive, and in my experience, blow easily. I now use red-tinted outdoor flood lights from the hardware store. They are a fraction of the price and work just as well. White lights aren’t a great idea, because the chickens think it’s daylight 24 hours a day.

The temperature in the brooder on day one needs to be around 33 degrees celsius. The temperature is gradually decreased until the heat lamp is turned off after three to six weeks. I used a thermometer and also watched the chickens’ behaviour to ensure they were at a comfortable temperature. If they crowd near the heat source and chirp loudly, they are too cold. If they move away from the heat source and pant, they are too hot.

Australorp chickens at three weeks old. Little eco footprints

Zippy the Australorp at seven weeks old. Little eco footprints.

Once fully feathered, at around seven weeks old, our chickens moved out of their brooder. They moved into a small pen next to our main coop. This allowed them get to know the other chooks, but with the safety of wire between them. They moved into the main coop once they were full size and more able to cope with being informed they were bottom of the pecking order.

Australorp chickens. Little eco footprints

Tiny pullet egg. Little eco footprints

Now five months old, our hens are laying delightful small eggs. These tiny "pullet eggs" have bright orange yolks and will gradually get bigger in the coming weeks.

They are laying the eggs haphazardly all over the ground. I’m training them to lay in the nesting box by leaving at least one egg in the box at all times.

The whole process has given us insight into what is involved in getting eggs to our table. Having to deal with the roosters has been particularly insightful. Roosters are an unwanted byproduct of the egg industry. In commercial hatcheries, they are killed by maceration or gassing shortly after hatching. It seems such a waste. I like the idea of breeding our own flock of old-fashioned dual-purpose breeds. Keeping the girls as layers and raising the boys for meat.

Australorp roosters. Litle eco footprints

Our two beautiful remaining boys – Soup and Stock – are now six months old. One should be heading to the pot. But to cut a long story short, we’ve decided our flock deserves two boys. I have chickened out this time.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 10th November 2014.

Strawberry fields forever: How to grow backyard organic strawberries

How to grow backyard organic strawberries. Little eco footprints.

My strawberry patch is bursting with sweet berries. I started last year with only 10 plants. I collected plantlets from those few founders and now have more than 100 plants. Next year I’m aiming for 1000.

If you manage your strawberry plants properly, you can enjoy homegrown berries forever, without having to buy new plants every few years.

Why eat organic? 

Strawberry season is especially exciting in our household because I don’t buy strawberries. Conventionally grown strawberries are typically laden with pesticide residues. A 2008 study by CHOICE found pesticide residues in almost all the conventionally grown strawberries they tested.

Anyone who has grown their own strawberries will know how susceptible they are to pests and fungal disease. Non-organic growers use a suite of pesticides to control these pests, making strawberries more likely to be contaminated than other fresh fruit. Washing your fruit isn’t the answer. Some pesticides are formulated to resist being washed off by rain and others penetrate right through the fruit.

{There's also awhole heap of environmental reasons why I favour organic}

Thankfully, for those of you who prefer your fruit to be free of pesticides, strawberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow in your backyard.

Here are my tips for growing organic strawberries.

1. Choose the right location

Choose a sunny spot for your patch to minimise the chance of fungal disease spoiling your fruit.

2. Build up your soil before planting

Large amounts of organic matter are vital for healthy and resilient strawberry plants. Prepare your soil in autumn, ready for late autumn or early winter plantings. I dug in horse manure, worm castings and compost at a rate of around one bucket per square metre.

3. Give plants plenty of space

Good air flow around plants will minimise the chance of fruit rotting. Space plants at least 30 centimetres apart.

Strawberry crowns will rot if buried, so make sure you leave the crown of each plant above the soil surface when planting.

4. Mulch heavily and fertilise regularly

Mulch your patch heavily to minimise weeds, retain water and keep soil cool. The mulch will also help to keep your fruit clean.

Fertilise regularly with worm wee or liquid seaweed fertiliser. Stop fertilising as soon as the plants start fruiting to avoid seaweed-infused fruit.

5. Find a variety suitable for your area

The taste and resilience of strawberry plants varies between varieties. Trial a few varieties to find what grows best in your garden. I purchased two varieties and collected healthy runners from a neighbour’s thriving strawberry patch. The local plants performed far better than the purchased varieties.

6. Treat them like an annual

Strawberries are short-lived perennials and are most productive and healthy in their first year. I replant a new patch each year.

Over summer, strawberry plants send out long horizontal stems called runners. Tiny plantlets form along these runners. I push aside mulch below each plantlet and anchor it in place by placing stones or soil along the runners. I collect these plantlets in late autumn, cutting the runners that connect them to their parent, and move them to the new patch.

7. Practice crop rotation

Strawberries are highly susceptible to soil-borne diseases. When choosing the location of a new patch, avoid areas that have grown other berries or members of the tomato family (Solanaceae) in previous years.

8. Give them plenty of water

Strawberry plants like plenty of water, especially when they are flowering and fruiting. However, leaves and fruit can rot if too wet. I water in the morning and water deeply less often.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 3rd November 2014.